Why your empathy can't 'scale up' to save the world

The rules for behaving well in a society arguably depend on the size of that society. The structures, institutions and even the logic behind human co-operation change along the axes of space, population, and time. From camping trips to climate change conferences, IDEAS examines why scale matters so much to conversations about the common good.

The rules for behaving well in a society arguably depend on the size of that society, says philosopher

Getting along on a camping trip is fundamentally different from how citizens co-operate in large societies. And global cooperation is a different game entirely. Philosopher Joseph Heath argues scale changes the logic of common good. (Shutterstock / anatoliy_gleb)

*Originally published on April 9, 2021.

It's usually pretty easy to figure out how to cooperate on a camping trip, when you have a handful of people working toward a common goal. 

But when scaling up to tackle bigger challenges like climate change, that kind of cohesion and cooperation is pretty much impossible, according to University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath. 

Heath uses an example from his own experience to capture the crux of the problem. 

While doing his graduate studies at Northwestern University, there were about 50 students and faculty who shared the department's library, with no need to lock the doors at night. Everyone borrowed books on an honour system. 

"In my old department, there were a lot of books that I contemplated stealing," admits Heath. "There were some really nice books there! And I never did, because of moral constraint. I was thinking about the impact it would have on all these people that I knew on a first name basis."

Philosopher Joseph Heath says the success of cooperation varies with the number of people involved. As a group gets bigger, it becomes harder to work toward a common interest — often resorting to bureaucratic hierarchy. (Graham Powell)

So when he took on a faculty job at the much larger University of Toronto, he suggested the same honour system for borrowing books from the library. This time there would be about 250 people borrowing from it. But the honour system didn't work.

"All the books got stolen," says Heath. "People just feel less guilty about, you know, anti-social behaviour, like stealing, when it affects people they don't really know."

He says that moral intuition and social pressure are less effective where there are more people involved and anonymity is more likely.

"Humans fail to cooperate all the time," says Heath. He points out that wars continue to be fought, even though everyone knows that people will be killed. 

"[And] humans have never succeeded in cooperating at a global scale with a problem as wide ranging as climate change," he adds.

"We can see that there would be enormous advantages to having a more co-operative society," says Heath.

"And so we have the rational insight that we could all be better off. There's a big difference between having that rational insight and actually implementing it. And we have those problems as individuals with respect to willpower, but we have those same challenges as a society."

What works at one scale may not work very well at another

Lottie Appel is an Outward Bound instructor who takes small groups of teenagers into the wilderness for their first time. The trips last anywhere from 5-14 days. She observes first-hand how group dynamics form and how different individuals work together — or don't. 

"The whole point of the expedition is that they learn it's not as efficient to do things on your own. You really need the help of a group to get things done, like many hands make light work sort of thing," says Appel. "You're forced to rely on each other and depend on each other in a very intimate way on these trips."

But even in small groups with an agreed system of cooperation in place, things go wrong when one individual quietly decides to break the rules.

Appel recalls how one teen broke the rules and suffered the social consequences. All the teens were outfitted with proper camping attire. No jeans or cotton allowed. It was bucketing rain, and the teen was having a hard time carrying his pack.

"So we opened up his bag and I realized that he had a lot of wet clothes at the top of his bag. It was all like denim and cotton and the things that we told him not to bring. Some kids caught wind of it, and one kid just kind of exploded at him… Like, 'you're so selfish, you're such a f****g asshole. You're the weakest link in this group!'" 

'In order for us to meet the objectives that have been sketched out by the IPCC and that are targets in the Paris agreement, we need serious cooperation among the world states. And that means some kind of mechanism to coerce states to comply with agreements,' David Maclean told IDEAS in 2019, pushing for a global authority. He is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Rutger’s University. (Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

Tackling climate change with a heavy hand

David McClean proposes a type of global climate change authority to keep countries in line, given that large scale cooperation doesn't seem to work when it comes to large scale problems like climate change. 

"Sometimes I wonder whether I'm insane," admits McClean, a senior lecturer at Rutgers University in New Jersey trying to persuade the United Nations to alter its strategy regarding the climate crisis. 

"But the logic is clear. You can't talk about the end of the world and at the same time leave things to voluntary compliance."

McClean has met with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and proposed the idea, and while there's interest, there hasn't been much serious traction. 

'Nature needs a bailout. In overcoming the pandemic, we can also avert climate cataclysm and restore our planet. The trillions of dollars needed for COVID recovery is money that we are borrowing from future generations,' UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a speech at Columbia University, Dec. 2, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/The Associated Press)

"You can't publish a report suggesting that we've got 10 years to fix the climate problem or we pass the point of no return, and then basically leave it to voluntary compliance and teenagers on boats to solve the problem for you."

But philosopher Joseph Heath doesn't put much hope in global authorities to handle the climate crisis.

"I put my bets on technological innovation," says Heath.

"In other words, I think that Elon Musk is more likely to save us than the secretary-general of the United Nations. So I think carbon pricing is a great idea, not because it could be a permanent law that's going to constrain fossil fuel production, but because it will generate technological innovation."

Guests in this episode:

Joseph Heath is a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Toronto. He's the author of Enlightenment 2.0  and The Machinery of Government. He also co-authored The Rebel Sell with Andrew Potter. His article on co-operative structures and scale is available here.

Lottie Appel is an expedition faculty instructor with Outward Bound Philadelphia.

David McClean is the author of Climate Change: The Moral and Political Imperatives and The Urgent Need for a Global Climate Change Authority, both available on his personal website.

This episode is part of our series on the idea of the Common Good — the eternal search for humankind: what does it mean to live together in society, and how might we best share the world we live in? Find more Common Good episodes here.

* This episode was produced by Tom Howell.

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