Think back on all the times you donated to a cause. Did you buy candy bars for your child’s school bake sale? You knew where the money was going and had faces to attach to the causes.
Nationwide, millions of people have donated to help ease the tragedy of the Newtown school shootings. The Red Cross collected over $100 million of aid for relief of Hurricane Sandy. Other national tragedies get so much media coverage that they end up collecting more money than necessary.
Yet we know there is daily devastation in Sudan, Congo and elsewhere. People are dying every day. What makes people so generous to those who are near and less for those far away?
Consider philosopher Derek Parfit’s theory of the “bias of the near.” He says that, “both in space and in time our attention is captured by what is close. I will agree to an engagement in six months that I would disdain this evening, because six months is so very far away. I will feed the starving child who is standing in front of me but ignore one who starves across the globe. I will help when pictures fill my TV screen, but simply knowing of suffering far away leaves me unmoved.”
Further, the way we receive news has changed. Almost everyone has a cell phone that is camera ready. Everyone is suddenly a reporter and news broadcaster. Recorded images are instantly uploaded to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. These images provide local faces to match the tragedies.
It used to be the case that charity was most generous for those whose suffering was distant. The most popular charities were LIVE AID, Unicef and Save the Children.
“But we have reoriented ourselves to help what we can see, what feels close. We saw the tornado. The tragedy of death was etched in tearful faces. We watched as a woman spoke of her lost home, or a child of his missing pet. It was on our screens 24 hours a day, demanding our immediate attention,” said a Huffington Post article.