In our book, we make the point (first developed by Tom Schelling) that policymakers and voters tend to respond more to (1) identifiable victims (e.g., the girl, Jessica McClure, who fell in the well, or workers trapped in a mine) even though helping them comes at a very high cost per victim, than to (2) statistical victims (Schelling's term), whose very costly plights could be prevented at a relatively low expenditure per victim (e.g., pre-natal care for low-income women).
This tendency may be rational if the number of situations like (1) is quite low; society can feel good about being generous and affirming the attractive but plainly false idea that life is infinitely precious and we will pay any price to preserve it. But in a very large range of cases, this bias against prevention is irrational and very, very costly to society.
In today's NY Times, p. A33, Nicholas Kristof, in a column entitled "Save the Darfur Puppy," takes this point a step farther -- a step too far, in my view. "The human conscience," he says, "just isn't pricked by mass suffering, while an individual child (or puppy) in distress causes our hearts to flutter."
Tell that to the Americans (and others) who contributed astonishing sums of money to a multitude of utterly anonymous, unidentifiable, and for all intents and purposes statistical victims of the Asian tsunmai, Hurricane Katrina, and countless other instances of mass suffering. It is true that some disasters are more telegenic than others, and that the media today plays a large role in triggering this philanthropic response in some cases more than others.
None of this is to deny the importance of the identifiable vs. statistical victims distinction. Indeed, I discuss this in a new unpublished paper on the different ways in which catastrophe is understood by science, by law, and by politics. But Kristof's well-intentioned column fails to mention some important factors that affect the response to human disasters like Darfur.
One factor is the difference between individual philanthropic responses and geopolitical responses, which are -- and must be -- based on different considerations. Another is the sense that once we get into certain rescue situations, we'll never be able to get out, or that our intervention will be ineffective or make matters worse. (Can you think of a current example??) Yet another is the free rider problem -- the hope that someone else will bear the costs, with the result that no one intervenes.
My point is NOT that we shouldn't do more to stem the suffering in Darfur. In fact, Kristof's earlier columns have made a strong case that we could and should do more, including a no-fly zone, stronger sanctions against Sudanese officials, and more effective pressure on their Chinese and Russian sponsors.
But our failure to take these steps does not mean that mass suffering does not prick our consciences. It manifestly does. Our failure to put more of our energy and resources into protecting statistical victims has something to do with psychology and media, but probably has more to do with the tragic choices presented by geopolitics in a world win which great evil and cruelty create immense human suffering.