Patterico's Pontifications


Using Empathy for a Reasonable Purpose: Ending U.S. Support for the War in Yemen

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 7:42 am

Yemeni Girl Starving

This photo prompted Facebook to remove posts containing the picture. I’m going to go link this post on Facebook right now, and include this picture.

The tale of Jamal Khashoggi might be more well known to most Americans than the war in Yemen, which has killed tens of thousands of people, both directly (as when Saudi Arabia killed 40 children on a school bus with a U.S.-manufactured bomb) and indirectly (as with the starvation and disease-caused deaths of as many as 85,000 children under the age of 5).

But the single death of Khashoggi may be the key to stopping the misery in Yemen. In a crucial vote that will take place today on U.S. support for the Yemen war, several Senators may be changing their vote — and the Mohammed bin Salman-ordered murder of Khashoggi may be the decisive factor in their changed position:

OPPONENTS OF THE war in Yemen have picked up momentum heading into a critical Senate vote on Wednesday on whether to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee has said that he would support the measure. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, also on the Foreign Relations Committee, has told colleagues that he supports the effort as well, Democratic aides told The Intercept.

Both senators voted to table the effort — which was introduced by Sens. Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee, and Chris Murphy — the last time it arrived on the Senate floor in March. Menendez is one of the more hawkish Democrats in the chamber, and his support for the resolution is a sign that the party is coalescing around opposition to the war.

. . . .

Four Democratic aides told The Intercept that in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing, many of the Democrats who voted against the measure in March are likely to flip. In addition to Menendez and Coons, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, and others are considering a vote in support of the measure. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday that he was undecided and would wait until after a Trump administration briefing Wednesday morning to decide how he would vote.

As I have pointed out before in discussing the death of Khashoggi, the war in Yemen is far worse than the death of a single journalist or dissident, but the psychological effect of a single death holds the attention better:

Khashoggi is hardly the first innocent person Mohammed bin Salman has had killed. We’re sending weapons to a regime that created a humanitarian crisis in Yemen and conducted an air strike on a school bus. But, to paraphrase Stalin, if only one man dies of torture and is cut up with a bone saw, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.

Paul Bloom, a psychologist, Yale professor, and famous opponent of empathy, has elaborated on the way in which empathy for a single person can outweigh statistical expressions of misery:

The key to engaging empathy is what has been called “the identifiable victim effect.” As the economist Thomas Schelling, writing forty-five years ago, mordantly observed, “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.”

You can see the effect in the lab. The psychologists Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov asked some subjects how much money they would give to help develop a drug that would save the life of one child, and asked others how much they would give to save eight children. The answers were about the same. But when Kogut and Ritov told a third group a child’s name and age, and showed her picture, the donations shot up—now there were far more to the one than to the eight.

The number of victims hardly matters—there is little psychological difference between hearing about the suffering of five thousand and that of five hundred thousand. Imagine reading that two thousand people just died in an earthquake in a remote country, and then discovering that the actual number of deaths was twenty thousand. Do you now feel ten times worse? To the extent that we can recognize the numbers as significant, it’s because of reason, not empathy.

As Bloom explained in his book Just Babies (affiliate link), the effect is even more stark than this. After all, the effect just described could be attributed to the difference between one scenario which personalizes a tragedy and another which doesn’t. But psychologists have shown that if you personalize a tragedy by showing the misery of one child, you actually decrease the amount of donations by adding a phrase like: “and there are thousands more just like her.” It’s not just the personalization of a single child that stirs the heart. It is the thought that this is the only person so situated — so if you cure this child’s problem, the problem is cured. The knowledge that this child’s problem is representative of the suffering of many … all that knowledge does is harden people’s hearts and deaden empathy.

Which is why reason is a better way to make decisions. But it’s not the way most human brains work.

So let’s take advantage of the empathy that Senators are feeling over the brutal murder of a single person, Jamal Khashoggi, and put it to use while Senators’ emotions are still manipulable. The Yemen war is arguably the worst thing in the world that the United States is supporting right now. If it keeps up, millions could starve in a widespread famine. Those are real people, not just statistics. So let’s hope the Senate votes against that war today.

[Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.]

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