Empathy and the veil of ignorance

Now, before I flip the coin and determine whether you'll be rich or poor, how do you feel about redistribution?

The Roving Bandit wonders why he feels more guilty about living near poverty in the United States than in South Sudan:

Driving through my neighbourhood in Juba, an American once asked if I felt guilty living in the midst of such poverty. I didn’t. At least no more than I had done living in England, being equally aware of the existence of such poverty. Physical proximity shouldn’t really have much to do with it.

I do though feel guilty about the guy who sleeps in the bus shelter in my New Haven neighbourhood. What is that?

One common explanation is that relative poverty should be, in theory, more manageable in more developed countries, so it seems more outrageous to us that there are people who have managed to slip through the net.

I have another theory: that we we’re more likely to empathize with those who suffer outcomes we might have (however unlikely) also endured.

It is connected to the concept of the veil of ignorance, introduced by John Rawls: we should design policy as if we were ignorant of what role in society we will take. For example, if the poverty rate is 25%, I should make decisions about redistribution while assuming there is a one in four chance I’ll be poor.

We may judge relative deprivation as a failure of these basic principals of fairness – I am bothered by poverty in the US or UK because I recognise that a roll of the dice might have placed me in a similar position.

Yet one’s subjective probability of being poor may be limited to the country of birth. While I may consider the 25% poverty rate at home when deciding how I feel about local poverty, I might consider my probability of being Sudanese to be strictly zero. As a result, I might feel less empathy towards poor Sudanese, because my subjective social contract only extends across possible outcomes.

Any other thoughts on why we find poverty in our home countries more distasteful (that fall outside the typical `same tribe’ arguments)? Is the `veil of ignorance’ argument discernable from more traditional `us versus them’ arguments?

9 thoughts on “Empathy and the veil of ignorance

  1. MJ

    November 15, 2010 at 6:46pm

    I think the empathy point is a good one. I also think it can work in the converse, see my recent post on the patronising nature of much development work. Similar identification issues are to be found in the old adage about one death being a tragedy, while 1,000 deaths is just a statistic.

  2. Carol Gallo

    November 15, 2010 at 8:27pm

    Good points and interesting discussion…. But I struggle with it a bit because I have very similar reactions to all scenarios mentioned. Not guilt, really, but an empathetic pang of sorts followed by some pondering over what can be done about it and what can be done to avoid more of the same in future. I seem to have that same basic response whether the context is the United States or Sudan. The only thing I can pin-point, personally, is a sense that because I’m American and I play a part in the election of the government– and the government claims to represent me, somehow– when it comes to poverty in the United States, it’s more embarrassing.

  3. David Week

    November 16, 2010 at 5:28am

    I’m not sure that your feelings are representative.

    Have you read George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of An Elephant? http://yv2.me/xqZK In that book, Lakoff describes the structure of American conservative thought, and in particular the religious roots of the idea that poverty is a sign of lack of grace, rather than history or social circumstance. Therefore, conservatives tend to think that the solution to poverty is not assistance, but discipline. And conservatives represent about 50% of the electorate of the US.

    According to Lakoff, conservatives basically see poverty as the fault of the poor, the result of bad behaviour, such as sex outside of marriage, drug-taking, and laziness. They don’t therefore see other people’s poverty as a reflection of themselves, but as S.E.P.: Somebody Else’s Problem — specifically, the poor’s. That’s why they are anti-welfare, anti-public health care, etc. Why should they be asked to pay for these, when the solution is for the poor to just stand up and become decent citizens.

    I suspect that overall it’s easier for OECD citizens to feel empathy for the offshore poor. In their own countries, the poor seem to be the target not of empathy, but of racism, stereotyping, xenophobia, Islamophobia, or—when these fail—labels such as “white trash” or “trailer trash.” Note that though there are violent criminal gangs in Haiti, Haitians as a whole are not stereotyped as violent criminals, in the way that poor American blacks are often stereotyped.

    I’d be curious as to what insights a comparative analysis of American giving to New Orleans and Haiti might provide.

  4. Shawn Forde

    November 16, 2010 at 8:33am

    Hi David,

    I wrote about a similar topic on my blog. I called it the ‘problem of proximity’. I don’t think I have thought on it as much as you, but my main thought was that people may have more empathy for external social problems because it is easier to dissociate yourself from the root causes of that problem. If I admit that the problems in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver are societal problems then I would need to acknowledge the fact that I am living in and contributing to a society that creates those problems.

    http://shawn-bapala.blogspot.com/2010/09/problem-of-proximity.html

  5. Laura

    November 17, 2010 at 12:11am

    The Veil of Ignorance was my all-time 2nd best Halloween costume. Only topped by the Axis of Evil. :)

  6. Justin Kraus

    November 17, 2010 at 9:02am

    I actually don’t feel this way. In fact I usually feel the opposite. After returning from an extended stay in Africa I usually have less empathy for the poor in my home country rather than more. I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing but I wonder how many people feel like yourself and the Roving Bandit and how many people feel like me. It would be an interesting poll.

  7. Matt

    November 17, 2010 at 9:25am

    Justin – I actually have similar feelings when coming back from the field, but they attenuate between visits.

  8. Lee

    November 22, 2010 at 5:52pm

    I spoke to an Indian friend yesterday, and he feels similarly to me – homelessness in Oxford seems almost more shocking than poverty in Sudan, because it should be so easily solvable.

  9. Vivek

    November 23, 2010 at 9:05pm

    > in more developed countries, … it seems more outrageous to us that there are people who have managed to slip through the net.

    >we’re more likely to empathize with those who suffer outcomes we might have (however unlikely) also endured.

    >the solution is for the poor to just stand up and become decent citizens

    >After returning from an extended stay in Africa I usually have less empathy for the poor in my home country rather than more.

    I think all of those statements are true (or can be). In my own subjective case, they are all true together.

    I think this topic is an example of where generalizing fails.

Comments are closed.