Category Archives: Utilitarianism

Rational compassion is a competitive advantage


Paul Bloom recently wrote a book called Against Empathy.

The thesis of the book is: rational compassion > empathy.

In other words: empathy (caring how someone feels at the moment) is poor guide for moral decision making when compared to rational compassion (which is more utilitarian in nature).

The difference is easiest to see when it comes to parenting: an overly empathetic parent might respond to a child’s failure by giving the child a cookie (thereby immediately decreasing the child’s suffering), while a parent utilizing rational compassion might help the child process her emotions (thereby reducing the probability of future instances of suffering).

While the idea is rather intuitive, we’re so hardwired for empathy that practicing rational compassion, especially at work, is very difficult.

Because it’s so hard to practice, and because most people are not good at it, the consistent use of rational compassion can be a competitive advantage for doing good in both the for-profit and non-profit sector.

List of Areas Where Rational Compassion > Empathy at the Work Place

Executing strategies that cause short-term harm for long-term gain: Tough decisions (such as school closures) cause short-term pain to others but can provide significant long-term outcomes. Being guided by rational compassion can help you get through this pain.

Pivoting and cannibalizing: Similarly, at times an organization needs to destroy existing program lines and harm existing beneficiaries of their work in order to pivot to a more productive model which will eventually add move value to more people (think Netflix going from mailbox to streaming). Empathy for existing employees and customers can blind one from the rationally compassionate act of eventually serving more people better.

Performance feedback: Rational compassion will lead you to give very direct and practical feedback so a colleague can improve her performance and achieve her and the organization’s goals. Having empathy for underperformance will lead to the avoidance of direct conversations, which in the short term causes more pain.

Firing people: Too much empathy for an individual who needs to be let go can cause immense harm to the people you are trying to serve. Especially in philanthropic work, firing a relatively privileged person in order to better serve people in extreme need is the rationally compassionate thing to do.

Accepting flaws of ambitious people: Sometimes ambitious people have a lot of flaws, which can lead you to empathize with all the people they are negatively impacting. However, these flawed people can also change the world for the better. Analyzing their actions through a rational compassion lens will help you understand if it’s worth supporting or partnering with people who are flawed but who can help the world become amazingly better. It will also help you avoid working deeply with nice people who are not effective.

The Risk of Rational Compassion 

One of the hardest parts of rational compassion is that it often involves overriding the legitimate short-term needs of others.

In other words: you’re saying you know what’s better for someone than she does.

While this is less of a tension in managerial situations (it’s your job to make feedback, coaching, firing decisions) and for-profit work (the customer will ultimately hold you accountable), in philanthropy (where it’s your job to help others) this can be a deadly sin.

It’s a blurry line between rational compassion and technocratic hubris.

There’s no easy way around this, though research and accountability can help.

In education, test scores, attainment, and parent demand can provide medium term feedback loops to provide a check on incorrect rational compassionate assumptions.

But while there are risks with rational compassion, most of society is so tilted toward empathy (especially in the education sector!) that an increase in the practice of rational compassion would be a welcome turn.


Are Millennials the First Utilitarian Generation?

While it may appear that I love to blast out NOLA education research on twitter all day, I actually do not. But I think it’s important, so I do it.

On to other topics.

Scott Sumner just had an interesting post on the rise of utilitarianism. He writes:

If I might be allowed a bit of armchair philosophical speculation, it seems to me that the advance of technology and utilitarianism are two of the most relentless trends in world history. The growing importance of technology is easy to see, while utilitarianism requires a bit more explanation…

Do read the whole post.

I think Scott may be right: utilitarianism does appear to be on the rise, especially amongst the elite. I see this in two ways: (1) viewing all people of equal worth and (2) a willingness to transfer wealth to those with less.

Gay rights is an example of the first. Trends in philanthropy (Give Well, Give Directly, etc.); bipartisan support for the EITC, and the growing Open Borders movement are all examples of the second.

Scott discusses much of the above in his post.

I view this as an incredibly important trend, one may that dwarf most other social trends, as it has the potential to greatly affect government policy.

While any philosophy breaks down if you ask “why?” enough times, versions of utilitarianism hold up longer than most, and their widespread adoption would likely increase the ability of more people to lead good lives.

So I do hope that Millennials are the first utilitarian generation. From a doing good perspective, this may make them the greatest generation to date.

As for the generation after the Millennials, perhaps they will be the generation of scientific truth. One of my friends works at a high status private sector company. Somehow or another, the topic of free will came up, and a 22 year old analyst said something along the lines of: “Of course we don’t have free will. None of my friends believe in that nonsense.”

Which of course begs the question: can you be a utilitarian if you don’t have free will?