It’s not easy being good, or right, writes Duncan Jepson. Psychological distance often clouds our judgement when we’re faced with ethical choices
Ilike to think of myself as a good person. But so often it’s difficult to be good because it’s hard to discern the right side of an issue. Like most people, I constantly trip in my efforts to do the right thing, then try my best to forget that I failed—and reassure myself that, well, at least I tried. The fight against modern-day slavery is an interesting example of the conflict between differing ideas of what’s the good or right thing to do. It’s difficult to believe that in the 21st century people are still sold like objects, trafficked across borders, and forced into work, the sex industry or marriages of servitude—millions of children among them. But it happens every day. The International Labour Organisation estimates that more than 20 million men, women and children are locked into lives of slavery by a litany of cultural and economic scourges, many unique to particular regions.
Anti-slavery activists and philanthropists funding the battle face a difficult choice: is it best to concentrate efforts on implementing long-term measures to wipe out this heinous crime, or should they allocate their resources to meeting the immediate needs of the individual victims?
Most people can’t see something as complex as modern slavery actually being brought to an end. Of course, they want it to stop, but it’s such a complicated global problem that they fear a solution cannot be found, or that the solution is too far into the future to contemplate as a concrete possibility. So amid such pessimism, they naturally default to the short-term view of providing aid for the victims of today. But is that the best course of action to follow?
The “construal level theory” of social psychology offers an explanation for why I’ll never be the good person I’d like to believe myself to be; why people give their time and money for today rather than the tomorrow they’d prefer to see; why people help today’s victims of slavery rather than work towards the long-term goal of ending it altogether.
The theory describes psychological distance and how it affects people’s thinking. The general idea is that the more psychologically distant an object or situation is from an individual, the more abstract will be that person’s thinking about it, while the closer the object or situation, the more concrete their thoughts will be. Because the causes of slavery are so numerous and complicated— and so psychologically distant from many individuals—people are often only able to contemplate the issue in abstract terms, whereas the immediate needs of victims can be seen and acted upon. The result is that we end up treating the symptoms rather than the disease.
The farther something is from our direct experience, the more we pretend to ourselves that we will actually do the right thing. But in the end we’re deluding ourselves and we’re left gingerly limping forward.