Dif­fi­cult De­ci­sions

It’s not easy be­ing good, or right, writes Dun­can Jep­son. Psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tance of­ten clouds our judge­ment when we’re faced with eth­i­cal choices

Hong Kong Tatler - - View From The Back -

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.

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