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!