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A Laboratory Study of “Love Your Fellow Man As Yourself”

By Shlomo Maital

Molly J. Crockett, Yale Univ.

   A recent BBC program put me on to some lovely research done by Molly J. Crockett, at Yale University, on altruism and morality. Her work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.*   She is a neuroscientist who uses lab experiments and functional MRI (brain mapping) to study moral behavior.

     In her lab, subjects administer small electric shocks to others and to themselves, for payment. Here is the main, surprising finding:

     “In two studies we show that most people valued others’ pain more than their own pain. This was evident in a willingness to pay more to reduce others’ pain than their own and a requirement for more compensation to increase others’ pain relative to their own. …… Our results provide evidence for a circumstance in which people care more for others than themselves.”

   In our synagogue we are studying philosopher Martin Buber’s pathbreaking book I and Thou, published in 1923 in German and in 1937 in English. In it Buber examines in deep philosophical terms our intimate relationship with God and with others.   “Thou”, archaic English used often for God, fails to capture the German “Du”, which is ‘familiar’, used only for persons with whom we are closely linked, usually our age or younger, as opposed to Dir, which is formal, respectful, used for those older than us. Buber’s key point is the very personal, intimate relationship we have with God, as ‘du’.

     How is Crockett’s work related to Buber?   Apparently, she explains in her BBC interview, when we are deciding on our moral behavior (administer a small painful shock to others), we step outside ourselves, and become “Thou”. The I-Thou transforms the I, as we empathize with the person with whom we are relating, and become ‘thou’. This is proven, by fMRI visuals showing the areas of the lateral pre-frontal cortex, which in general ‘imagine’ situations and outcomes.  

     So Buber’s I-Thou is indeed the foundation of morality, except that in Crockett’s work, a key part of morality is the ability to actually BECOME our neighbor, the person with whom we are interacting. So there IS a scientific foundation to the Jewish precept of “Love they neighbor as thyself”.   This occurs, when we actually become our neighbor, stepping outside of our own selves. It is highly significant that for most people, they prefer to administer an electric shock to themselves rather than to someone else. I know I certainly would.

   By the way, Crockett’s lab experiments are done under strict ethical standards. The electric shocks are slight, short and, as the BBC interviewer mentioned, perhaps no more than briefly putting your hands under hot water.  

   She has a brilliant 11 minute TED talking that is worth watching.

*Harm to others outweighs harm to self in moral decision making”. Molly J. Crockett, Zeb Kurth-Nelson, Jenifer Z. Siegel, Peter Dayan, and Raymond J. Dolan PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences   December 2, 2014 111 (48) 17320-17325; first published November 17, 2014


Effective Altruism: If Only We ALL Practiced It

By Shlomo Maital

   Altruism is defined as a philosophy of doing good for others. It is an admirable change-the-world framework for living. But is it enough?   Philosopher Peter Singer (in a superb TED talk – you can look it up) proposes effective altruism – which applies evidence, logic and reason to find the most effective and efficient ways to help others.   Yes, do good – and do it in the most powerful impactful way, by carefully planning what and how you do.

     Singer’s example: a seeing eye dog costs $40,000 to train, and to teach the blind person how to make best use of it. Highly worthy. But millions in poor countries are blind, due to trachoma and cataracts – both of which are curable and fixable. You could bring sight to perhaps 200 blind people with the resources used to train one guide dog. Altruism is providing seeing eye dogs. Effective altruism is weighing the best use of those resources.

       Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have given billions to medical charities. Gates’ Foundation has saved an estimated 5 million lives – and enriched the lives of millions more – by rigidly applying effective altruism to their resources and projects, focusing on illnesses that are widespread, afflict the poor, and that can be cured or mitigated. Like malaria.

       What if millions of people worldwide would embrace altruism? And then, what if we could supply a very simple straightforward set of guidelines, about how to be efficient in our altruistic behavior? Our time, resources and energy are limited. How can we do the most good with them?   And even before asking those questions – how can the notion of ‘effective altruism’ be ‘sold’ to the masses?

         Today everything is becoming ‘evidence-based’. Perhaps doing good for others, too, should be more evidence-based.   When we combine the powerful emotion of giving, and the impactful logic of rational decision-making, the result can be immensely beneficial to humanity.


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital