Long time readers of this blog know that I have serious doubts about the uses of empathy. Readers of my book The Last Psychoanalyst know that I have proposed a theoretical rationale for my view.
I mention it because today’s psychotherapists believe that their mission is to enhance our ability to feel the pain of other people. Apparently, they do so because they deeply admire Bill Clinton, a paragon of human decency who famously told people that he could feel their pain.
In our empathy-laden correct world, a man wrote to Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence, to explain that his wife, owner of a ballet school, had received a request by two parents to offer private lessons to their ten-year-old son. The problem was, these parents were forcing the boy to spend two years acting like a girl, dressing like a girl, being called by a girl’s name. The better to help him to feel the pain of being an oppressed female.
I will accept this instance as anecdotal, but it is also true that research into the uses of empathy bears out my point of view.
Yale psychologist Paul Bloom reports on it in the New York Times. He begins by asking whether our politics would be improved if we all felt more empathy:
What could be more exhilarating than experiencing the world through the perspective of another person? In “Remembrance of Things Past,” Marcel Proust’s narrator says that the only true voyage of discovery is not to visit other lands but “to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds.” This is one of the central projects of the humanities; it’s certainly part of the pleasure we get from art and literature.
Many believe that this psychological connection is also essential for political change. They may argue, for instance, that in order for white Americans to adequately respond to the events in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, they need to put themselves in the shoes of those in minority communities. After the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police officers, Hillary Rodham Clinton called for changing police tactics, and then added: “The most important thing each of us can do is to try even harder to see the world through our neighbors’ eyes, to imagine what it is like to walk in their shoes, to share their pain and their hopes and their dreams.”
As one might suspect, Hillary was reciting the gospel according to therapy. She seems to have learned it from her husband. The truth is, Bloom continues, we are largely incapable of feeling anyone else’s pain:
In his book “Mindwise,” the psychologist Nicholas Epley discusses experiments in which people were asked to judge the thoughts of strangers. These included asking speed daters to identify others who wanted to date them, asking job candidates how impressed their interviewers were with them and asking a range of people whether or not someone was lying to them.
People are often highly confident in their ability to see things as others do, but their attempts are typically barely better than chance. Other studies find that people who are instructed to take the perspectives of others tend to do worse, not better, at judging their thoughts and emotions.
Bloom suggests that we should not rely on empathy. He offers a better approach:
Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say. This isn’t perfect — people sometimes lie, or are confused, or deluded — but it’s by far the best method of figuring out the needs, desires and histories of people who are different from us. It also shows more respect than a clumsy attempt to get into their skins; I agree with the essayist Leslie Jamison, who describes empathy as “perched precariously between gift and invasion.”
A provocative thought. Therapists are supposed to be masters at listening to what their patients are saying. And yet, if this is true, why do they emphasize empathy and other forms of quasi-telepathic communication?
As for the question of whether an enhanced capacity for empathy improves our moral being, the Clintons should have long since dispelled that illusion.
In Bloom’s words:
Also, Mrs. Clinton might be mistaken in her claims about the moral importance of perspective-taking. Scholars ranging from Adam Smith to the contemporary literary critic Elaine Scarry have pointed out that when we try to act morally toward strangers based on empathic projection, we typically fail. This is in part because we’re not good at it, and in part because, when we allow ourselves to be guided by our feelings, our emotional investment in ourselves and those we love is overwhelming relative to our weak attachment to strangers. We become better people and better policy makers if we rely instead on more abstract principles of justice and fairness, along with a more diffuse compassion.
I will briefly take issue with Bloom’s suggestion that we should base our policy decisions on abstract principles. We do better to base them on facts, not ideals, on an objective appraisal of the present situation and on the record of what has succeeded of failed in the past.