Why your empathy can’t ‘scale up’ to save the world

CBC Radio

In this podcast/article, Philosopher Joseph Heath discusses the importance of putting an end to climate change. He believes that it is easier for a smaller group of people to co operate while working with a larger scale “changes the logic of common good” which is not always the case. As seen from Lottie Appel who is an outward bound instructor and takes a small group of teenagers into the wilderness, it was proven that they were not always able to cooperate. This contributes to the idea that Philosopher Joseph Heath’s idea is not consistent. Philosopher Joseph Heath also believes that technology and Elon Musk is the answer to end climate change. However, at the time he envisions, the human species may not be able to utilize technology. He ignores the spiritual implications of climate change. His non-spiritual approach can lead to a dead end.

Getting along on a camping trip is fundamentally different from how citizens co-operate in large societies. And global cooperation is a different game entirely. Philosopher
Joseph Heath argues scale changes the logic of common good. (Shutterstockanatoliy_gleb)

It’s usually pretty easy to figure out how to cooperate on a camping trip, when you have a handful of people working toward a common goal.

But when scaling up to tackle bigger challenges like climate change, that kind of cohesion and cooperation is pretty much impossible, according to University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath.

Heath uses an example from his own experience to capture the crux of the problem.

While doing his graduate studies at Northwestern University, there were about 50 students and faculty who shared the department’s library, with no need to lock the doors at night. Everyone borrowed books on an honour system.

“In my old department, there were a lot of books that I contemplated stealing,” admits Heath. “There were some really nice books there! And I never did, because of moral constraint. I was thinking about the impact it would have on all these people that I knew on a first name basis.”

Philosopher Joseph Heath says the success of cooperation varies with
the number of people involved. As a group gets bigger, it becomes
harder to work toward a common interest — often resorting to bureaucratic hierarchy. (Graham Powell)

So when he took on a faculty job at the much larger University of Toronto, he suggested the same honour system for borrowing books from the library. This time there would be about 250 people borrowing from it. But the honour system didn’t work.

“All the books got stolen,” says Heath. “People just feel less guilty about, you know, anti-social behaviour, like stealing, when it affects people they don’t really know.”

He says that moral intuition and social pressure are less effective where there are more people involved and anonymity is more likely.

“Humans fail to cooperate all the time,” says Heath. He points out that wars continue to be fought, even though everyone knows that people will be killed.

“[And] humans have never succeeded in cooperating at a global scale with a problem as wide ranging as climate change,” he adds.

“We can see that there would be enormous advantages to having a more co-operative society,” says Heath.

“And so we have the rational insight that we could all be better off. There’s a big difference between having that rational insight and actually implementing it. And we have those problems as individuals with respect to willpower, but we have those same challenges as a society.”

What works at one scale may not work very well at another

Lottie Appel is an Outward Bound instructor who takes small groups of teenagers into the wilderness for their first time. The trips last anywhere from 5-14 days. She observes first-hand how group dynamics form and how different individuals work together — or don’t.

“The whole point of the expedition is that they learn it’s not as efficient to do things on your own. You really need the help of a group to get things done, like many hands make light work sort of thing,” says Appel. “You’re forced to rely on each other and depend on each other in a very intimate way on these trips.”

But even in small groups with an agreed system of cooperation in place, things go wrong when one individual quietly decides to break the rules.

Appel recalls how one teen broke the rules and suffered the social consequences. All the teens were outfitted with proper camping attire. No jeans or cotton allowed. It was bucketing rain, and the teen was having a hard time carrying his pack.

“So we opened up his bag and I realized that he had a lot of wet clothes at the top of his bag. It was all like denim and cotton and the things that we told him not to bring. Some kids caught wind of it, and one kid just kind of exploded at him… Like, ‘you’re so selfish, you’re such a f****g asshole. You’re the weakest link in this group!'”

‘In order for us to meet the objectives that have been sketched out by the IPCC and that are targets in the Paris agreement, we need serious cooperation among the world states. And that means some kind of mechanism to coerce states to comply with agreements,’ David Maclean told IDEAS in 2019, pushing for a global authority. He is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Rutger’s University. (Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

Tackling climate change with a heavy hand

David McClean proposes a type of global climate change authority to keep countries in line, given that large scale cooperation doesn’t seem to work when it comes to large scale problems like climate change.

“Sometimes I wonder whether I’m insane,” admits McClean, a senior lecturer at Rutgers University in New Jersey trying to persuade the United Nations to alter its strategy regarding the climate crisis.

“But the logic is clear. You can’t talk about the end of the world and at the same time leave things to voluntary compliance.”

McClean has met with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and proposed the idea, and while there’s interest, there hasn’t been much serious traction.

‘Nature needs a bailout. In overcoming the pandemic, we can also avert climate cataclysm and restore our planet. The trillions of dollars needed for COVID recovery is money that we are borrowing from future generations,’ UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a speech at Columbia University, Dec. 2, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/The Associated Press)

“You can’t publish a report suggesting that we’ve got 10 years to fix the climate problem or we pass the point of no return, and then basically leave it to voluntary compliance and teenagers on boats to solve the problem for you.”

But philosopher Joseph Heath doesn’t put much hope in global authorities to handle the climate crisis.

“I put my bets on technological innovation,” says Heath.

“In other words, I think that Elon Musk is more likely to save us than the secretary-general of the United Nations. So I think carbon pricing is a great idea, not because it could be a permanent law that’s going to constrain fossil fuel production, but because it will generate technological innovation.”

Podcast link: Common Good | What If This Gets Bigger?

Guests in this episode:

Joseph Heath is a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Toronto. He’s the author of Enlightenment 2.0 and The Machinery of Government. He also co-authored The Rebel Sell with Andrew Potter. His article on co-operative structures and scale is available here.

Lottie Appel is an expedition faculty instructor with Outward Bound Philadelphia.

David McClean is the author of Climate Change: The Moral and Political Imperatives and The Urgent Need for a Global Climate Change Authority, both available on his personal website.

One thought on “Why your empathy can’t ‘scale up’ to save the world

  1. A very interesting read. I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with University of Toronto Philosopher Joseph Heath’s point and arguments in that I do see how they are true under many circumstances, but that there are many different reasons why his beliefs do not hold for all scenarios; therefore, I side with Lottie Appel in her view that Heath’s ideas are not consistent. While I am aware of the fact that people are often less mindful of the consequences of their behaviour and actions on a larger group in which “anonymity is more likely” and that cooperating to tackle big issues like the climate crisis as a global community is certainly harder than on a camping trip, I have a few stories from my own experiences that I would like to share that make Appel more relatable than Heath.

    In terms of the belief that small group cooperation is easy with a common goal in mind, my own experiences with group work at school have almost always proved that wrong. For me, my worst memory of working in a small group is for my very first project of the term for grade 9 phys. ed. (PPL1O1). I remember it being a group assignment where we had to work in pairs, and there was an even number of students such that groups of two were easy to make. I got “automatically” paired up with a girl I knew from elementary school because we were the only ones who were unable to find a partner to work with for that project. I had worked with her previously for dance class in grade 6, and although she was someone I often talked to in class and during recess back then, she did not leave a very good impression on me when we were rehearsing for tests as I found her to be a bit rude and hard to get along. The minute I realized that I would be working with her for that phys. ed. project, I remained calm and kept telling myself that it was a one-time thing and that I would not have to work with her again if I chose not to. However, things turned out to be much worse than I could ever have imagined. She was not only hard to please and get along, she also avoided making eye contact with me and responding to me and/or tried to get up and walk away whenever I tried to talk to her about how we want to get started on that project, and I just did not understand why. I am naturally gentle and a bit soft-spoken, and I was always extra careful in my choice of words with her. At first, I thought that maybe there was something wrong with her, but then I noticed that she was not like this when she was around other people, which surprised me somewhat. I was too embarrassed to tell my phys. ed. teacher about it, so I just tried to talk to her during each phys. ed. class before the due date of that assignment. And guess what? She still ignored me no matter how hard I tried to get her to talk to me about that project, even when we both knew that the due date was coming up. She just did not want to work with me. So while others were pretty much putting their final touches on their project on the days very close to the deadline, my group had not even reached the brainstorming point. I became more and more anxious with each passing day, and I just gave up completely on the last class we had before the date of the presentation since I still could not get her to sit down with me and talk to me for longer than five minutes. I kept reminding her that we might fail if she continued to give me this kind of attitude, but she did not seem to care at all. I was shocked because I thought that all pairs should be “working toward a common goal” of getting the project done and getting a good grade on it. I mean, who does not want to do well in school? What is terrible about group work sometimes is that everyone’s progress will be affected if we have just one person refusing to cooperate, especially if we would all be given the same mark. When the big day came, our group just did not have anything to hand in. My teacher ended up phoning my mother and my partner’s mother. I felt really bad about having my teacher call home, and this was something that never happened to me before for not completing schoolwork. When I got home, my mother asked me what happened and I told her all about how my partner refused to even talk to me in class about that project, let alone work with me from start to finish. I went to talk to my teacher privately the next day and told her what happened. She ended up splitting us and giving both of us a second chance to have it done by a new deadline, though at a penalty, and warned us that this would be our second and final chance to complete the project or else we would get a 0% on it. My mother and I almost jumped up in joy when we heard this, and I was super happy that I did not have to work with that girl anymore and that I got to work alone this time around. I ended up doing OK on that second attempt, even after the grade deduction was applied to my overall mark, but I was still very grateful for the second chance my teacher gave me (us?) because I would most likely have failed the course if I got a 0% on that course component. Besides this example, I also have many other examples of how it can be very tricky to cooperate in a small group, but I will not go into the details here in this response. To summarize, I would say that when it comes to group work, there are always a few people who are very easy to work with, who clearly know what they are doing and how things should be done, and who clearly have the group objectives in mind; however, at the same time, there is almost always this one person or these two people who is/are just hindering everyone’s progress for reasons that vary from situation to situation. These reasons include physical and/or mental health issues, interpersonal difficulties/conflicts, differences in availability for collaborative work, being unable to make a meeting due to conflicting schedules, time zone differences, etc. Whatever the reason(s) may be, the point is that it is NOT always true that it is easier to cooperate in a small group of people who are supposedly “working toward a common goal” because things do come up, many of which are entirely beyond our control. It could even be that all members of a small group are working hard towards that common goal, when emergencies or unforeseen circumstances arise so that the group is unable to achieve that goal in the end. Anything is possible, really.

    When it comes to group work at school, I would say that all groups—big or small—are usually more motivated to work when under supervision of a teacher(s). For example, I noticed that tasks get done super efficiently when we are guided, led, and supervised by an instructor(s). I find that this is the case with school field trips, where cohesion and cooperation just seem so nice and smooth, and things get done fairly quickly, even with almost 100+ students. My point is, whether cooperation is easy or difficult, highly depends on the specific context, and fewer people involved does NOT always mean easier. In this case, I believe that Heath’s statements cannot be generalized for all scenarios.

Leave a Reply