My broken Care-o-Meter
Humans, Emotions and Scale
Emotionally, humans have a hard time handling large numbers. Examples:
The universe ist huge. There are more stars than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of earth (check youtube). And yet there are more atoms in one grain of sand than there are stars in the universe. Those are huge numbers. They are so huge that it doesn’t matter if I tell you the exact number because either way it will only appear as “huge” in our minds.
One more example. Picture two tragic events. An earthquake with 2.000 casualties and a tsunami with 200.000 casualties. Our emotional response to the tsunami is not a hundredfold that of the earthquake, right? More like… the same. The math part of our brain admits, that the tsunami is 100 times worse than the earthquake but we don’t feel it to the same scale. To me is seems like my emotional response is somewhat like that awesome graph I drew on my paper substitute.
The broken Care-o-Meter
Towards bigger numbers my emotional response simply levels off, even though the logic part of my math brain “understands” the linear scale. That’s a problem. Why? We must make important decisions that effect future generations and if we don’t get the scale of our decisions’ consequences, we might just get us all killed someday (not exaggerating here).
Sometimes we also face seemingly equal opportunities to do good. Reviewing the real numbers however, we then notice that our brain lied at us. And it has been lying at us all the time and will continue to do so. We couldn’t handle all the suffering out there if our emotions scaled linear to the suffering, but that doesn’t make the suffering any less real to those affected by it.
I went through three stages when checking the stack trace of my broken care-o-meter issue:
- Realization: Suddenly the real scale of suffering out there became real to me. I now understood how I’ve been lied to so terribly many times.
- Real care: Shifting the amount I cared from my emotional response to the math behind the suffering I started to care a lot more about the suffering out there. Knowing I could suffer very much when losing ONE loved one, my heart started to bleed terribly when understanding the scale of the suffering out there.
- Despair: I wanted to save the world. But I couldn’t. That made me hate myself and the world (and I’m still working on this one) and sometimes lead me towards not doing anything at all; into the deadlock of despair.
The (possible) Solution(s)
I’m just some guy and I’m by far not the brightest crayon in the box. But I’ve found some solutions for me; for now…
- I’ve learned to be very suspicious towards my emotions or lack thereof. I don’t trust them any longer when I make decisions about donations or other altruistic behaviour. Instead I only crunch the numbers. After all, I don’t want to feel better by doing good. I want to DO good!
- I know that I won’t save the world. But I can still make a world of a difference for some few. I sometimes get fed up of donating money because of people like Warren Buffet who make donations of 3 billion dollars in a single gesture, more than 6000 times the amount I’ll be able to donate in my entire life. Knowing that every person is the centre of his own universe and that saving one mind from suffering changes the WORLD for that mind (which could have been mine by the way!) I get out of that deadlock.
- I admit defeat in saving the world. But knowing that I’m doing what is right I believe its a wonderful way to fail. I can’t be a superhero but I’ll try to do a damn good job in being human.
“Don’t fear failure. — Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.” – Bruce Lee
Thanks for hearing me out.
Additional Reading: Minding Our Way – On Caring
image by NASA
It’s even worse …
Very interesting ! If you are looking for charity comparisons that take the consideration of a broken car-o-meter seriously, I highly recommend checking out https://www.givewell.org/. They are closely linked to the Effective Altruism Movement, in case you heard about that. There are also similar minded people in NZ! Check out https://effectivealtruism.nz/ if you are interested 🙂
Thanks for pointing that out Carolin! I actually stumbled across Peter Singer’s TED talk on effective altruism some years ago which was a major trigger for me to put thought and effort into this area. http://www.givewell.org was and still is one of my main sources for my yearly evaluation of whom / what I want to donate to. I have not checked out any NZ platforms however which for some reason never crossed my mind but now definitely is something that I will do 🙂 Thanks!