Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Famine, affluence, and psychopathy

I recently read Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test. It’s an engaging, entertaining and interesting read, and I’d warmly recommend it to people who like that sort of thing. It’s a book about psychopaths. Apparently they’re everywhere, but don’t worry: most of them don’t go round killing people. Mostly they’re just charming, lacking in conscience and empathy, easily bored, promiscuous, irresponsible and a few other things. It’s a dimensional thing rather than a binary one, but he said that by a pretty reasonable classification about 1% of us are psychopaths. Most are men. Lots are in prison.

Reading a Jon Ronson book tends not to make you an expert on anything, but it did get me thinking. Many of my readers are probably familiar with Peter Singer’s paper ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, in which he argues that rich people should give away most of their money to help save the lives of strangers in poor countries. Most people think it’d be terrible to see a child drowning in a shallow pond but not save it because you’d get your trousers muddy, and being surrounded by a crowd of equally callous onlookers doesn’t really get you off the hook. Peter Singer thinks blowing our disposable incomes on trivia when we could be saving the lives of strangers is much the same. Of course they don’t feel the same, but Singer doesn’t think that matters. Nor do I, really.

Now, the impression that I got from Jon Ronson’s book was that psychopaths are the sort of people who might see a kid drowning in a shallow pond and ignore it for the sake of their trousers. On the other hand, most of us seem to be the sorts of people who would hear of some children dying on the other side of the world and ignore them for the sake of something trivial. Maybe a nice new pair of trousers. Quite a lot of ink has been spilled trying to make excuses for us without excusing pond-ignorers, but maybe the psychopath analogy provides a more fruitful way of looking at it. My suggestion is that normal people stand to the kids in (at time of writing) Niger as psychopaths stand to the kids in the pond. If psychopaths are excused, so are we. If not, not.

One difference which I suppose is relevant is that if you’re not a psychopath and have a fully functional imagination you might be able to spot parallels between famine children and pond children and get appropriately worked up about the former. I guess that’s part of the point of those charity advertisements showing people suffering instead of just telling you about it. Maybe our failure to spot the parallels and engage our emotions consistently is culpable, so people who want to excuse the psychopaths but not the general public have a logical place to stand. But in any case, if there’s a reasonably common kind of person who would be as unmoved by a kid in the pond as the rest of us are by famine victims, then it seems kind of dense for the discussion of Singer’s arguments not to take them into account.