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Thursday, June 17, 2021

Biased Benevolence: The Perceived Morality of Effective Altruism Across Social Distance

Law, K. F., Campbell, D., & Gaesser, B. 
(2019, July 11). 


Is altruism always morally good, or is the morality of altruism fundamentally shaped by the social opportunity costs that often accompany helping decisions? Across five studies, we reveal that, although helping both socially closer and socially distant others is generally perceived favorably (Study 1), in cases of realistic tradeoffs in social distance for gains in welfare where helping socially distant others necessitates not helping socially closer others with the same resources, helping is deemed as less morally acceptable (Studies 2-5). Making helping decisions at a cost to socially closer others also negatively affects judgments of relationship quality (Study 3) and in turn, decreases cooperative behavior with the helper (Study 4). Ruling out an alternative explanation of physical distance accounting for the effects in Studies 1-4, social distance continued to impact moral acceptability when physical distance across social targets was matched (Study 5). These findings reveal that attempts to decrease biases in helping may have previously unconsidered consequences for moral judgments, relationships, and cooperation.

General Discussion

When judging the morality of altruistic tradeoffs in social distance for gains in welfare advocated by the philosophy and social movement of effective altruism, we find that the perceived morality of altruism is graded by social distance. People consistently view socially distant altruism as less morally acceptable as the person not receiving help becomes socially closer to the agent helping. This suggests that whereas altruism is generally evaluated as morally praiseworthy, the moral calculus of altruism flexibly shifts according to the social distance between the person offering aid and the people in need. Such findings highlight the empirical value and theoretical importance of investigating moral judgments situated in real-world social contexts.