I wonder if somebody’s already thought of this, but it occurred to me and not to my favorite sounding board friend, so I thought I’d share.
In the Moral Landscape, Sam Harris reports experimental evidence that a subject’s compassion response is lessened when he’s told that a particular hardship is being simultaneously experienced by multiple individuals, the more individuals, the lower the response. Harris doesn’t speculate at all about why this might be and seems confident that it is simply an example of people doing “moral calculus” incorrectly even while he acknowledges that it’s common to people in general.
It isn’t necessary for Harris to cite a cause for this for him to accomplish his goal in this text, but it sounds like he doesn’t one and is perplexed why this would be as it so obviously violates standard moral intuition. Well, I’m thinking that it’s an economic decision that’s written itself into our genes. Faced with one suffering individual, we think we can fairly easily make a real impact on the situation. Faced with multiple individuals, we start thinking about how great a drain on our resources making a difference would be. The more individuals you add, the more our pocketbooks shrink because a real commitment to help would leave us bankrupt (which in Stone Age terms means ‘starving’) and divert us from reproduction or other socially useful pursuits. There are lots of things that people intuitively do as a collective but altruism doesn’t seem to be one of them.
We also know, both intuitively, and most of us through experience, that when you share hardship with others it’s easier to bear—the more mutual support the easier. Some of that is purely moral support, but it’s also about applied resources, internal and external to the hardship. So this “violation of standard moral intuition” seems like nothing of the kind to me ... particularly if we’re talking about actual acts of compassion rather than just how we feel.