Shut Up and Divide?

Dur­ing a re­cent dis­cus­sion with kom­pon­isto about why my fel­low LWers are so in­ter­ested in the Amanda Knox case, his an­swers made me re­al­ize that I had been ask­ing the wrong ques­tion. After all, feel­ing in­ter­est or even out­rage af­ter see­ing a pos­si­ble case of in­jus­tice seems quite nat­u­ral, so per­haps a bet­ter ques­tion to ask is why am I so un­in­ter­ested in the case.

Reflect­ing upon that, it ap­pears that I’ve been do­ing some­thing like Eliezer’s “Shut Up and Mul­ti­ply”, ex­cept in re­verse. Both of us no­ticed the ob­vi­ous craz­i­ness of scope in­sen­si­tivity and tried to make our emo­tions work more ra­tio­nally. But whereas he de­cided to mul­ti­ply his con­cern for in­di­vi­d­u­als hu­man be­ings by the pop­u­la­tion size to an enor­mous con­cern for hu­man­ity as a whole, I did the op­po­site. I no­ticed that my con­cern for hu­man­ity is limited, and there­fore de­cided that it’s crazy to care much about ran­dom in­di­vi­d­u­als that I hap­pen to come across. (Although I prob­a­bly haven’t con­sciously thought about it in this way un­til now.)

The weird thing is that both of these emo­tional self-mod­ifi­ca­tion strate­gies seem to have worked, at least to a great ex­tent. Eliezer has de­voted his life to im­prov­ing the lot of hu­man­ity, and I’ve man­aged to pass up news and dis­cus­sions about Amanda Knox with­out a sec­ond thought. It can’t be the case that both of these ways to change how our emo­tions work are the right thing to do, but the ap­par­ent sym­me­try be­tween them seems hard to break.

What eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples can we use to de­cide be­tween “Shut Up and Mul­ti­ply” and “Shut Up and Divide”? Why should we de­rive our val­ues from our na­tive emo­tional re­sponses to see­ing in­di­vi­d­ual suffer­ing, and not from the equally hu­man paucity of re­sponse at see­ing large por­tions of hu­man­ity suffer in ag­gre­gate? Or should we just keep our scope in­sen­si­tivity, like our bore­dom?

And an in­ter­est­ing meta-ques­tion arises here as well: how much of what we think our val­ues are, is ac­tu­ally the re­sult of not think­ing things through, and not re­al­iz­ing the im­pli­ca­tions and sym­me­tries that ex­ist? And if many of our val­ues are just the re­sult of cog­ni­tive er­rors or limi­ta­tions, have we lived with them long enough that they’ve be­come an es­sen­tial part of us?