There is common tendency in human life to act in ways contrary to what we believe.
The classic example is the German people under Nazi rule, most of whom likely thought of themselves as good people—the kind of people who would help their neighbors even at risk to themselves, but did not do anything about the rounding up of Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals into concentration camps. They didn’t want to give up their self-image as a good person, but they also didn’t want themselves and their family to potentially face the wrath of the SS. So, many convinced themselves that they didn’t care about what was happening. That was far easier, less painful, than admitting that they were not quite as moral and upright as they thought or having to put themselves in mortal danger.
I used to think that I would have been one of the few who did in fact shelter the “undesirables” from the Nazis. Now, I am less confident. But I want to be better. Just recently, I realized I have been similarly inconsistent by not donating to organizations that help people dying of preventable diseases and can measure lives saved in relatively low numbers of dollars.
If you had accused me of this up until a few days ago I would have given you all sorts of excuses for why this lack of action and my belief “the death and suffering of others is bad and I should prevent it if I can” were not inconsistent. I would have told you how I feel terrible about the dying children when I think about them, but I am prioritizing other problems. And besides, I’m a college student with very little disposable income and it’s really just financially prudent to save all my money in case of an unforeseen contingency. Once I start making more money later on in life, then I’ll start contributing to organizations that send people malaria nets.
But that’s all a self-deception. The truth is that my beliefs and actions were inconsistent. Because I quite firmly believe that saving lives is more important than beer, yet I continually find money for beer and yet none for the Against Malaria Foundation.
I think the root cause of this kind of inconsistency is often a feeling of being overwhelmed. If you imagine a single child dying of malaria, feverish and convulsing weakly in her bed while her parents look on in helpless horror, you’ll probably wish you could do something to stop those people’s pain.
When you think about the thousands in the same position, when you think about the difficulty of doing something, how much money it would cost to actually save a life, the need to ensure that the organization you’re sending money to actually will use it effectively to help people in need…well, the whole thing just seems too complicated. Not only that, there are so many organizations claiming that donating money to them will save lives, and few of them are likely to admit other organizations are doing the same job better. Decision paralysis takes over and it’s very easy to decide that this is one of those things that’s better not to think about, at least for now.
On the other hand, grabbing drinks with friends is quite simple to execute, and it is very easy not to notice the opportunity cost (Note: I am not saying that I think I should or anyone should stop spending money on enjoying themselves, just that if I have enough disposable income for getting drinks with friends, I would consider that I have enough to spend on saving lives).
And that is the way I chose to be indifferent about something I would have cared about if my beliefs were consistent. I’d like to rationalize it as prioritizing other things, rather than just deciding not to care, but that is not the truth. The truth is I understand exactly how most of the German people under Nazi rule made themselves indifferent to the rounding up of their “undesirable” neighbors. When something bad is happening and we don’t quite know how to stop it, or the sacrifice needed to help stop it feels painful, choosing to be indifferent is frighteningly easy, even about truly horrific things.
Having noticed this inconsistency the problem becomes obvious. I did not think about the true opportunity cost of non-essential purchases, which is that the same money could be used to help save lives. When I look at a buying anything I do not strictly need from now on, I am going to try to remember that opportunity cost, so that, even if I do end up buying the thing anyway, at least I have not stopped caring.