One of the greatest feats of the human brain is its ability to filter a vast amount of information into a manageable stream of relevant information. Evolution has sculpted the course of this stream in order to maximize fitness, ensuring that we pay attention to things that are relevant for our survival and reproduction, and filter out irrelevant.
This means two things; we have sampled an excruciatingly tiny portion of the buffet of potential experiences our neural hardware is capable of, and we are insensitive to certain environmental information that didn’t confer an adaptive advantage in the ancestral environment. Developing sensitivity to this information is crucial for rational and ethical behaviour in the modern world.
Cognitive biases can lead the most empathic and conscientious people to behave in ways that could appear as sheer callousness.
The source of this seemingly selfish behaviour is not malice or indifference, but more that our brains are not equipped to apprehend reality as it really is. By recognizing our cognitive limitations we can understand why people act in inconsistent and unethical ways and how we can avoid falling into the same trap ourselves.
If people acted in accordance with their espoused egalitarian preferences, they would treat the value of every human life equally. In practice this is not the case. Despite endorsing egalitarian norms studies have shown unconscious cognitive biases can lead to valuation functions that decrease in absolute value as the number of victims increases!
So what can be done?
The first solution is to recognize our own susceptibility to systematic biases that lead us to unsympathetic behaviour; once this has been recognized our rationality can be deployed to alleviate the greatest amount of suffering possible. Recently this effort has been known as ‘Effective Altruism’, which aims to use evidence and reason to evaluate all actions to achieve the greatest positive impact. (Peter Singer gives and excellent overview of Effective Altruism in his TED Talk.) When allocating resources to humanitarian causes, difficult trade offs must be made and the allocation may largely depend on which ethical theory is adopted.
This is not the only bias of our minds. We receive and remember the information which validates our notions and theories about how the world is going, and dismiss, ignore the information cotradicting, denying them. I.V.