Deliberate Consumption of Emotional Content to Increase Altruistic Motivation

tl;dr: De­liber­ate con­sump­tion of me­dia that trig­ger our emo­tions could help in­crease mo­ti­va­tion to do good. Im­ple­ment­ing it in a way that does not harm EA is im­por­tant.

This is a rather ‘ex­plo­ra­tory’ post. I am not con­vinced this is a good idea, though I might try it out in a limited way some time.


Emo­tions as mo­ti­va­tion to do good

Effec­tive Altru­ists are great at find­ing the mo­ti­va­tion to do good through rea­son alone; emo­tions as a mo­ti­va­tor are dis­cussed less fre­quently.

The mark of a civ­i­lized hu­man is the abil­ity to look at a column of num­bers, and weep. - At­tri­bu­tion unclear

is a great ideal. (I mean, who doesn’t want to be called civ­i­lized by ap­prox­i­mately Ber­trand Rus­sel.) But I be­lieve we can also use­fully em­ploy emo­tional con­tent to mo­ti­vate us to do good.

I will use the phrase ‘char­ity porn’ (in anal­ogy to poverty porn) for such con­tent, though I’m not sure it’s the most fit­ting/​ap­pro­pri­ate term.

Char­ity porn (CP): me­dia that vividly show suffer­ing to be alle­vi­ated, well-be­ing to be cre­ated, or the moral sta­tus to be recognized

CP tries to trig­ger a large emo­tional re­sponse in peo­ple (like em­pa­thy, com­pas­sion, guilt, shame, dis­gust, anger, out­rage, love, recog­ni­tion of moral sta­tus) to cause them to be­have char­i­ta­bly.

Ex­am­ples of our emo­tions helping to con­vince us of good ac­tions are all around us. Fund-raisers for ex­am­ple spotlight in­di­vi­d­ual fates in­stead of cit­ing statis­tics. Graphic re­ports by holo­caust sur­vivors can deepen our com­mit­ment to fight­ing in­tol­er­ance and au­thor­i­tar­i­anism. Dras­tic fac­tory farm­ing doc­u­men­taries cause many peo­ple to be­come veg­e­tar­i­ans or ve­g­ans.

I want to find out: Can we put our emo­tions in ser­vice of our rea­son to in­crease our mo­ti­va­tion and com­mit­ment to do­ing good? Can we do this in an eth­i­cal way?

More con­cretely: Could we cre­ate a me­dia product that helps us live by the val­ues and con­vic­tions that we ar­rived at through ra­tio­nal thought? I am think­ing, for ex­am­ple, of an app that shows us images of an­i­mal fac­tory farm­ing or of happy an­i­mals be­fore we go shop­ping so we buy less meat.

Such a product would not aim to give an ac­cu­rate emo­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the eth­i­cal struc­ture of the world. Rather would it sup­ply an ad­di­tional push when try­ing to build new habits or fol­low through with a plan.

In this post don’t con­sider many of the de­tails of how such a product would look. It would be im­por­tant to find out which emo­tions are par­tic­u­larly effec­tive and harm­less to em­ploy and how fre­quently and strongly they should be trig­gered. I as­sume that many of the an­swers will also be highly per­sonal de­pend­ing on each per­son’s goals and strug­gles in lead­ing an eth­i­cal life.


Pos­si­ble applications

The most ob­vi­ous place for me to ap­ply CP is in re­duc­ing an­i­mal suffer­ing. Per­son­ally, I try to re­duce my meat con­sump­tion, but I think I could in­crease my suc­cess if I looked at images/​videos of fac­tory farm­ing be­fore en­ter­ing the su­per­mar­ket. Another op­tion is look­ing at happy an­i­mals and an­i­mals show­ing in­tel­li­gent be­hav­ior and emo­tions. The last two links es­pe­cially I would count as ‘moral sta­tus’ porn. Images like this could help us in­clude an­i­mals back into our moral cir­cle that they might have slipped out of dur­ing last week­end’s BBQ...

Con­tent re­lated to global poverty and health can be more dicey (see ob­jec­tions be­low), but by sourc­ing it care­fully and se­lect­ing an ap­pro­pri­ate medium it could be done in an eth­i­cal way in my opinion. One sim­ple op­tion is to de­liber­ately con­sume the con­tent that char­i­ties pro­duce them­selves, like per­sonal sto­ries.

Another cause area where CP could po­ten­tially be ap­plied is ex­is­ten­tial risk/​longter­mism since the hap­piness cre­ated/​suffer­ing avoided can be quite ab­stract/​dis­tant in time. Mak­ing these things more tan­gible for peo­ple in an emo­tional sense could in­crease mo­ti­va­tion to work hard on these is­sues or change habits detri­men­tal to the cli­mate for ex­am­ple. Pos­si­ble con­tents could be de­pic­tions/​de­scrip­tions of nat­u­ral or hu­man-made catas­tro­phes like ex­treme weather events or nu­clear bomb ex­plo­sions. Fic­tional writ­ings about a pos­i­tive long-term fu­ture of hu­man­ity or dystopian fu­tures like in Or­well’s 1984 could also be effec­tive.


Ob­jec­tions to CP

(Most of these ob­jec­tions mainly ap­ply to de­pic­tions of suffer­ing.)

The fol­low­ing list of ar­gu­ments against/​limi­ta­tions upon CP are con­densed from var­i­ous sources, char­ity and jour­nal­ist ethics codes, poli­ti­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions, dis­cus­sions with the EA Göt­tin­gen lo­cal group and some of my own ideas.

They are grouped in the cat­e­gories: poli­ti­cal harms, harm to de­picted/​de­scribed per­sons, harm to the cause area, harm to the per­son con­sum­ing the me­dia, harm to EA.

Poli­ti­cal harms.

CP could harm in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, in­crease racism & xeno­pho­bia if de­pic­tions contain

  • archety­pally colo­nial imagery

  • sim­plified view of the suffer­ing per­son’s culture

  • sim­plifi­ca­tion of circumstances

  • sim­ple vic­tim­iza­tion of suffer­ing persons

  • rep­re­sen­ta­tion of suffer­ing per­sons as in­com­pe­tent, ob­jects rather than sub­jects, etc.

Harm to de­picted per­sons.

  • Vio­la­tion of de­picted per­son’s pri­vacy & au­ton­omy rights, dignity

  • Pho­tog­ra­pher’s/​re­porter’s in­volve­ment/​mo­tives can be questionable

  • Risk of ex­ploit­ing the suffer­ing peo­ple through trade of their imagery

Harm to cause area.

  • Can lead to worse help/​solu­tions if de­pic­tions sim­plify the situ­a­tion or rep­re­sent it in­cor­rectly.

  • Can cause push-back against the cause if po­ten­tial givers feel re­sent­ment for be­ing pres­sured/​guilt-tripped into helping.

  • Can lead to char­i­ta­ble be­hav­ior that is less sus­tain­able if mo­ti­va­tion is largely due to short-term emo­tions, so­cial pres­sure, guilt etc.

Harm to con­sum­ing per­sons.

  • Inun­da­tion with images of suffer­ing could lead to jad­ed­ness, car­ing less, feel­ing over­whelmed or hel­pless. (Maybe down­load­ing the suffer­ing of the en­tire world onto your smart­phone is not the best idea...)

  • “Gam­ing” of own emo­tions could have ad­verse psy­cholog­i­cal effects.

Harm to EA community

  • Use of CP in the EA com­mu­nity could be seen as sick and per­verted by pub­lic. Could lead to ac­cu­sa­tions of

    • gam­ing of own emo­tions, psychopathy

    • ei­ther masochism (tor­tur­ing one­self) or sadism (en­joy­ing look­ing at suffer­ing of oth­ers)

    • com­mod­ifi­ca­tion of suffer­ing, per­sonal profit from other peo­ple’s suffering


An­swers to objections

The eth­i­cal sourc­ing of the con­tent (con­sid­er­ing how it was cre­ated & by whom, pri­vacy rights and dig­nity of de­picted per­sons etc.) is cru­cial in mak­ing this prac­tice ac­cept­able.

Some of the other ob­jec­tions to the use of such ma­te­rial be­come void if one con­sumes the con­tent pri­vately only as op­posed its use in mass mar­ket­ing cam­paigns. Guilt-trip­ping one­self is okay. How­ever, peo­ple who make the per­sonal choice to adopt this prac­tice need to con­sider nega­tive effects it could have on their emo­tional well-be­ing.

Which medium to use is also im­por­tant if putting this into prac­tice. Texts, es­pe­cially fic­tional writ­ings, carry less risk of vi­o­lat­ing peo­ple’s pri­vacy rights or dig­nity. When us­ing images, con­sent of the de­picted per­sons is im­por­tant to con­sider, but not a prob­lem for de­pic­tions of an­i­mals in my opinion. The images should cre­ate re­al­is­tic im­pres­sions of the situ­a­tion to make sure that emo­tions are not get­ting in the way of the most effec­tive ways to ad­dress the prob­lem.

To pro­tect against pos­si­ble harms to EA’s image mar­ket­ing/​pre­sen­ta­tion of such a product/​prac­tice needs to be care­fully de­signed (maybe us­ing the term ‘porn’ isn’t the best idea in this con­text...).


Ques­tions for the comments

Would you con­sider us­ing such a product? Un­der what con­di­tions?

Do you have other ar­gu­ments/​con­sid­er­a­tions against CP that I have missed?

Do you have other ideas for cause ar­eas where it could be ap­plied?

What con­tents speci­fi­cally could be used to min­i­mize the harms?

Look­ing for­ward to a fruit­ful dis­cus­sion. :)


Thanks to the back­feed­ers from the Effec­tive Altru­ism Edit­ing and Re­view face­book group and the EA lo­cal group Göt­tin­gen!