Conservation of Caring

I hypothesize that humans have only so many shits to give.

Some of us start out with more inherent ability to care than others do, but however much caring you’ve got in you, there’s probably not a lot you can do to increase it beyond that basic amount.

What you can do, however, is shift it around.

If things are going really badly for yourself, you’ll dedicate most of your energy to yourself–dealing with sickness, job loss, divorce, etc., leave very little energy leftover for anyone else. You are simply empty. You have no more shits to give.

If things are going badly for someone close to you–family or friend–you’ll dedicate much of your energy to them. A sick or suffering child, for example, will completely absorb your care.

Beyond your immediate circle of close friends and family, the ability to care about others drops dramatically, as the number of others increases dramatically. You might give a suffering acquaintance $5 or an hour of your time, but it is rare to otherwise go out of one’s way for strangers.

There are just way too many people in this category to care deeply about all of them. You don’t have that much time in your day. You can, however, care vaguely about their well-being. You can read about an earthquake in Nepal and feel really bad for those people.

One of the goals of moralists and philosophers has been (I think) to try to increase peoples’ concern for the well-being of others. If concern for others can actually be *increased*, then we may be able to care about ever-bigger groups of people. This would be especially good for people in modern society, as we now live among millions of people in countries of hundreds of millions on a planet with billions, while possessing nuclear weapons and the ability to destroy our own environment, it is pretty important that we feel at least some vague feelings of responsibility toward people who are not within our immediate friend/family circles.

Even if moralizers and the like can only cause a small increase in the amount of caring we can do, that still could be the difference between nuking a million people or not, so that’s still a valuable thing to try.

(Note that this kind of large-scale concern is probably entirely evolutionarily novel, as the ability to even know that people exist on the other side of the planet is evolutionarily novel. Most people throughout human history lived more or less in tiny hunter-gatherer bands and people not in their bands were basically enemies; it is only in a handful of countries over the past couple thousand years or so that this basic pattern has shifted.)

But to the extent that the number of shits we can give is fixed, we might end up just shuffling around our areas of concern.

And doing that seems likely to be prone to a variety of difficulties, like outrage fatigue (being unable to sustain a high level of caring for very long,) missing vital things that we should have been concerned about while being concerned about other things, and fucking things up via trying to fix problems we don’t actually know the first thing about and then getting distracted by the next concerning thing without ever making sure we actually improved things.

Well-meaning people often try hard to care about lots of things; they feel like they should be, somehow, treating others as they would themselves–that is, extending to everyone in the world the same level of caring and compassion. This is physically impossible, which leads to well-meaning people feeling bad about their inability to measure up to their standards of goodness. As Scot Alexander points out, it’s better to set reasonable goals for yourself and accomplish them than to set unreasonable goals and then fail.

My own recommendation is to beware of “caring” that is really just social posturing (putting someone down for not being hip to the latest political vocabulary, or not knowing very much about an obscure issue,) or any case of suddenly caring about the plight of “others” far away from you whom you didn’t care about five minutes ago. (Natural disasters excepted, as they obviously cause a significant change in people’s conditions overnight.) Understand your limits–realize that trying to solve problems of people you’ve never met and whom you know virtually nothing about is probably not going to work, but you can make life better for your friends, family, and local community. You can concentrate on understanding a few specific issues and devote time and resources to those.

The “Other” is but a Foil for the Self

The “other”, somewhat by definition, is not someone you are particularly well-acquainted with. This is not generally a matter of malice–there are about 7.5 billion people in this world, and you’re only capable of really getting to know a couple hundred, at best. Even if you spent years of your life living in different countries, you’d still only manage to sample a small selection of the world’s people. For better or worse, most people out there are strangers.

People profess to care a lot about strangers. In a recent example, lots of people who aren’t gay and do not live in Indiana or run bakeries became very worried about laws affecting gay people and bakeries in Indiana. Your particular opinion on the subject is, I’m sure, absolutely the correct one, but that’s beside my point–the point is, it’s highly unlikely that you, the reader of this post, are actually affected by the legislation or even know anyone who is, just because the chances that you live in Indiana and are a baker or are gay are low. Your opinions are basically in support of (or against) someone else–total strangers.

There are three reasons to be skeptical of just about any conversation that hinges heavily on professed interest in the well-being of strangers:

1. Low information: We aren’t there; we aren’t on the ground; we don’t know these people and what they’re really going through. We’re getting our information second or third or more-hand. There is always a good chance that we are completely wrong.

2. No negative impact from being wrong: If I advocate for a water-conservation strategy for California that turns out to be totally wrong, Californians will suffer, not me. If I advocate a bad foreign policy position, foreigners will suffer, not me. If I advocate for laws that harm people or businesses in Indiana, I remain unharmed.

3. People don’t really care about strangers: Most people care deeply about their close friends and family, their pets, and some groups they identify with, like “Harley riders,” “Linux users,” or Muslims. They don’t actually care that much about strangers. The average American, for example, spends more money feeding cats than feeding starving children in Africa.

All of which means that even the best-intentioned people are often completely wrong, and factors other than rationally constructed, reasonably cautious, genuine concern for others tends to motivate us without us even noticing.

The myth of the “Noble Savage” is a fine example. It is generally credited to Rousseau, though probably someone else thought of the idea before he did, but the idea didn’t really gain too much currency while Euros while still busy killing “savages.” Other or not, you’re unlikely to be inclined to romanticize people you’re killing, and some folks–headhunters, cannibals, the Aztecs, King Gezo of the Benin Empire–were actually pretty horrifying. The notion that life in the “state of nature” was “nasty, brutish, and short,” had a lot of merit.

Still, neither Hobbes nor Rousseau (nor Locke) was actually advocating policies meant to affect “savages”; they utilize notions of the primitive “other” to advocate policies for their own societies.

Between lurid tales of head-hunting cannibals and depictions of dire, third-world poverty, it is pretty easy to see how people used these ideas to boost notions of Euro-exceptionalism and justify slavery, colonialism, war, and other horrors.

After WWII, people were justly pretty horrified at Euros and stopped believing Euro culture was all that–noble, enlightened Europeans looked just as bad as everybody else on the planet, except that now some of us were armed with nukes instead of pointy sticks and rocks, which is a pretty worrying situation.

So the savages got re-written. Anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, even commercials urging people not to litter began pushing the new narrative that non-Euros were, to put it plainly, better than Euros. American Indians became spiritual curators of nature; stone-age people became peaceful matriarchists; ethnographies were written portraying hunter-gatherer tribes as bastions of non-violent cooperation.

Many of the new narratives were total, factual nonsense. Indians don’t have an exceptional environmental record (though they did historically lack the tech and density levels to do too much damage.) There was no universal stone-age matriarchy. And most hunter-gatherers actually have pretty high murder rates.

But that’s all beside the point; that was never the point. No one wrote ethnographies about the Bushmen with the intention of somehow affecting the Bushmen (who couldn’t read them, anyway.) The point of all these stories is to change the self; to influence one’s own society to rise to the level of these mythic, noble savages.

This is the purpose of most myths: to instruct people in proper morality and inspire them to behave well. Done well, myths probably aren’t particularly problematic.

There are some problems to watch out for, though:

1. The “other” isn’t actually mythic. They are real people, and claiming total nonsense about them can have real effects on them (good or bad).
2. A mythos of self-hate can do actual harm to yourself/the people you were trying to inspire to be better.
3. I have an irrational affection for honesty.

(I suppose, 4. Saying really incorrect things about other people can make you sound dumb, but this is a minor issue.)

A lot of our tribal signaling (ie, “politics”) is conducted via expressing opinions about the other. Homosexuality, as previously referenced, is a good example of this; gay folks are only about 3% of the population (and gay people who want to get married are an even smaller %,) so most people expressing opinions on the subject don’t actually know that many gay people. If they turn out to be wrong, well, it’s not them and it’s not their friends, so there’s not that much incentive to be correct. But if socially signalling group membership is of direct benefit to the individual (which it generally is,) then people will signal group membership by saying whatever is useful to say about others–and reality be damned.