The Causes of Human Rights Violations (45): Distance

Whereas it’s obvious that distance can be a protection against human rights violations – privacy needs distance, and physical integrity requires a safety zone – it’s equally true that it often harms human rights.

We care more about our friends and family than about strangers, especially distant strangers, about whom we know very little, if anything. Maybe we don’t know their predicament and hence the idea of our possible duty to help them and safeguard their rights doesn’t even arise. Or maybe we know about their predicament but we’re ignorant about the causes. Hence, they could have themselves to blame, in which case we tend to think that we’re not obliged to help. Or if they don’t have themselves to blame, our ignorance about the causes of their predicament inhibits our effective assistance. Maybe we also assume that the causes are local, and hence not our fault.

It’s safe to say that such feelings of detachment increase proportionally with distance, because the further away the less we know and the more we assume that we are not responsible. To some extent at least: the effect of distance flattens out; we’re not more detached from people five thousand miles away than from people four thousand miles away.

The effect of distance, although it decreases after a while, does start very quickly. A few meters can be enough to reduce empathy:

Drawing on motivational approaches to emotion, the authors propose that the perceived change in spatial distance to pictures that arouse negative emotions exerts an influence on the significance of these pictures. Two experiments induced the illusion that affective pictures approach toward the observer, recede from the observer, or remain static. To determine the motivational significance of the pictures, emotional valence and arousal ratings as well as startle responses were assessed. Approaching unpleasant pictures were found to exert an influence on both the valence and the arousal elicited by the pictures. Furthermore, movement of pleasant or neutral pictures did not influence startle responses, while the second experiment showed that approaching unpleasant pictures elicited enhanced startle responses compared to receding unpleasant pictures. These findings support the view that a change of spatial distance influences motivational significance and thereby shapes emotional responses. (source)

In other words: perceiving the approach of negative emotion-eliciting scenes intensifies the associated felt emotion, while perceiving receding emotion-eliciting scenes weakens the associated felt emotion.
There’s a less abstract illustration of this point in an experiment conducted by Dan Ariely:

[W]hat causes people to stop for beggars and what causes them to walk on by[?] To look into this question, I called on … an acting student at Boston University. I asked [him] to try a few different approaches to begging and to keep track of the approaches that made him more or less money. He made more money when he was standing and when he looked people in the eyes. It seemed that the most lucrative strategy was to put in more effort, to get people to notice him, and to look them in the eyes so that they could not pretend to not see him. (source)

So a reduction of both the physical distance (standing) and emotional distance (eye contact) resulted in more giving and less poverty.

At some point, something very interesting happened. There was another beggar on the street – a professional beggar – who … said, “Look kid, you don’t know what you’re doing. Let me teach you.” And so he did. This beggar took our concept of effort and human contact to the next level, walking right up to people and offering his hand up for them to shake. With this dramatic gesture, people had a very hard time refusing him or pretending that they did not see him. Apparently, the social forces of a handshake are simply too strong and too deeply engrained to resist – and many people gave in and shook his hand. Of course, once they shook his hand, they would also look him in the eyes; the beggar succeeded at breaking the social barrier and was able to get many people to give him money. (source)

You could argue that this whole distance thing is a red herring. If everyone takes care of those who are close, then distance won’t be a problem. Still, it will be a problem in many cases because not everyone has friends and family who can help. The beggars in the quote above probably only know other beggars and hence have to rely on efforts to reduce distance.

Indeed, one way of solving the distance problem is to try to reduce distance. The beggars’ strategy isn’t the only example. NGO campaigns almost always feature close-ups of the faces of people in distress, as well as personal stories about their predicament and about how the global system has made it worse (implicating better off people far away). These faces and stories reduce distance in a way that is similar to the beggars’ eye contact. Alternatively, instead of trying to reduce distance, one can attempt to discredit the idea of distance altogether and foster a more cosmopolitan approach to caring.

There’s also another way in which distance can cause human rights violations, although you would have a hard time finding a lot of examples at this point in history (perhaps only in failed states such as Afghanistan or Somalia where a violent and extremist rebel movement tries to assert its authority):

Margaret Anderson explains that the best way to understand the dastardly public torture of criminals in early modern Europe is to consider the need of authority to establish itself over great distance, in an era before cell-phones and a legitimate judicial systems. (source)

Other posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (70): Rich People Not Giving Enough Money to Poor People, Ctd.

In a previous post I looked at some of the reasons why rich people don’t give more money to poor people, and I assumed that the stories people tell themselves have a lot to do with it. Here’s a bit more about this.

The distant poor are the first to be removed from our stories. Archaic and morally dubious notions such as the “national family”, national solidarity etc. are advanced to justify this move. These notions may be linked to certain pragmatic arguments justifying the focus on the poor within our borders: poverty alleviation requires redistribution, redistribution requires a welfare state – adequate taxation and a strong government able to enforce redistributive programs – and there’s no such state on the global level. The merits of this argument are dubious: there are many ways to combat poverty beyond the national welfare state – international development aid, charity, an open borders policy etc.

Another pragmatic argument in favor of focussing on the poor in our own countries goes like this: it’s better for people to help others who are close by, because closeness comes with knowledge about the needs of those who should be helped and about the best ways of helping them. There are also problems with this argument: our poor compatriots are probably as distant to us as the poor in Africa; those who are close to the distant poor are probably poor as well and therefore unable to help – or at least will find it much harder to help compared to people in the rich parts of the world whose marginal utility of the next dollar of income is only a tiny fraction of the utility that the same dollar would provide to the distant poor.

Whatever the merits of these arguments, they help to explain why the distant poor are often removed from sight. The next step is to remove some of the non-distant poor as well. We don’t want to encourage begging, and that’s what we do when we give money to beggars. We want to make work more attractive than begging, and hence we shouldn’t give to beggars. We should even criminalize begging so as to encourage beggars to go find a job. That’s good for the beggars – at least in the long run – and for the rest of us as well because beggars may be a nuisance. Giving doesn’t just encourage begging and unemployment; it robs people of their agency, their self-reliance and their sense of responsibility. It traps them in dependence, and most of the time it encourages bad habits. How many beggars use their earnings to fuel their alcohol addiction? Never mind that alcohol may be the only thing that gives them some pleasure in life and that allows them to forget their misery, if only temporarily. And never mind that the same kind of paternalism is generally viewed as offensive when targeted at the non-poor.

But what about selection biases? Aren’t we more likely to give to some beggars and not to others? The old Mother Theresa like woman with the baby in her lap? The cripple showing off his amputated limbs? The clever beggar who has monopolized the busy intersection and who threatens competitors with violence? All in all, we’ll probably give to those who already get the most, and hence we don’t help the most needy. However, giving can take different forms, and handouts to beggars are just one option. If you’re worried about people abusing cash handouts, why not give them access to healthcare or food? If you’re worried about selection effects, why not make sure that everyone gets an equal share? And if you’re worried about dependency, why not give conditional aid: people only get cash or services when they prove that they are looking for a job, when their children attend school etc.

More posts in this series are here.