Over the past few years, I’ve noticed an increasing number of people engaging in a peculiar behavior. First, they read a news article or blog post describing something egregious happening to someone. Then, they proceed to voice their outrage to as many people as possible. They tweet about it. They talk about it on Facebook and IRC. They submit it to aggregators like Reddit and Hacker News. They write comments calling the perpetrator of this injustice a monster. They talk of how the accused deserves to have their life ruined. They condemn anyone who calls for restraint, raises objections, or doubts the story. A week later, the whole thing is forgotten. By then they’ve moved on to the next injustice-du-jour.
This behavior is absurd no matter how selfish or altruistic one is. Anyone who read about horrific occurences and then voiced their indignation at every opportunity would be unbearable. Expressing such outrage is a reliable way to cause unhappiness while accomplishing nothing.
And considering the vast number of horrible things happening to people around the world, reacting to whatever you stumble upon (and feel strongly about) is an extremely wasteful method of prioritization. Our intuitions are terrible judges of suffering. We deem harm wrought by other humans as worse than harm wrought by nature, even though nature regularly visits misery beyond the most disturbed psychopath’s aspirations. Scope insensitivity tempts us to value ten lives equally to ten thousand. Even simple things like pictures or proximity can impede our ability to reason about harm. In this case, going with your gut will cause you to care about the wrong things.
Being helpful is much harder than being outraged. It involves finding important (but typically boring) problems, figuring out how best to help, and then actually helping. Since I would be a hypocrite of the highest order if I didn’t follow my own advice: Today I donated $1,000 to the Against Malaria Foundation. This charity has been evaluated by GiveWell as one of the most cost-effective ways to save lives. One carefully-targeted donation can do more good than several lifetimes of outrage.