Monday, December 28, 2015

Why give to poor people if psychology is adaptive?

Slate Star Codex has a really good post about how there are lots of unhappy people everywhere:
The world is almost certainly a much worse place than any of us want to admit. And that’s before you’ve even left America. 
This is part of why I get enraged whenever somebody on Tumblr says “People in Group X need to realize they have it really good”, or “You’re a Group X member, so stop pretending like you have real problems.” The town where I practice psychiatry is mostly white and mostly wealthy. That doesn’t save it. And whenever some online thinkpiece writer laughs about how good people in Group X have it and how hilarious it is that they sometimes complain about their lives, it never fails that I have just gotten home from treating a member of Group X who attempted suicide.
The adaptive scales of human happiness are a tricky philosophical problem when it comes to figuring out who to help and how to allocate resources. There are lots of unhappy people in rich places, and lots of happy people in poor places. On the face of it, this fact might provide a justification for not transferring resources to poorer places, on account of all the miserable people in the rich world.

What I take from the literature on adaptive psychology is actually that happiness shouldn't be the focus of our ethical decisionmaking. Measurement issues aside, it seems pretty clear that providing people with basic needs like food, shelter, safety etc. doesn't necessarily ensure happiness. But instead of discounting extreme poverty and focusing on happiness, I say discount happiness and focus on capability deprivation.

To go on somewhat of tangent... our society is not an airplane, where we are told to "secure your own mask before helping others". The issues of psychological health are among the most intractable and complex in existence, and I doubt that diverting more resources towards them at the expense of simpler things like food, shelter and disease would bear much fruit. These psychology problems require new ideas, new social structures and new frontiers in which to test them. Most importantly they require time. The more minds that we can liberate from poverty the faster we'll be able to figure this stuff out.

Adaptive psychology is one of humanity's great strengths, but just because people can endure terrible poverty doesn't mean they should.

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