For many years now I have been making the case against empathy on this blog. See also and especially my book, The Last Psychoanalyst. In particular, I have been saying that therapists who proclaim empathy to be the ultimate emotional virtue have misled us.
These therapists have reasoned that since psychopaths conspicuously lack empathy, they would cease to be psychopaths if only they could be taught to feel the pain they were inflicting on their victims. Thus did empathy become the panacea for the evils that humans do. It’s a nice idea, unless the same psychopaths like to feel a bit of pain now and then.
Therapists also imagine that empathy works like an emotional glue that produces profound human connections. They see it connecting people at the most profound level. Better to be connected by sharing feelings, they say, than by participating in the same ritual or discussing the same objective reality, like the weather.
For my part, I have noted that if you are involved in competition, empathy for the pain you will want to inflict on your opponent will not make you a more fierce competitor. In fact, it will dull your competitive edge.
Happily, I am not alone in thinking that empathy is not all that it is knocked up to be. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has done very interesting work on the topic.
Recently, in The Atlantic Bloom argued that people who have a superior capacity for empathy are often willing to inflict the greatest pain on those they believe deserve it. Given the right circumstances, empaths happily allow themselves to be carried away with an impulse to take revenge.
It is a fascinating observation. And yet, for all I know, the reason could be that people who believe in feelings are most likely to lack a rational or socio-ethical check on their feelings. They are most likely to allow themselves to be led around by their feelings. Yet, Bloom is certainly correct to argue that empathy does not, in and of itself, function as an unalloyed moral virtue.
Speaking of moral sentiments, Bloom presents Adam Smith’s version of this idea, surely one of the earliest observations:
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759, Adam Smith observes that when we see someone harmed by another, we feed off his desire for vengeance: “We are rejoiced to see him attack his adversary in his turn, and eager and ready to assist him.” Even if he dies, our imagination does the trick: “We enter, as it were, into his body, and in our imaginations, in some measure, animate anew the deformed and mangled carcass of the slain, [and] bring home in this manner his case to our bosoms.”
People with a superior capacity for empathy tend to indulge in sadistic behaviors. At times, they do so in the name of justice, but in other times, the motives are more complex.
Students were asked to choose how much hot sauce to give to two people, both of whom are in financial difficulty. One of the subjects was non-plussed by her financial problems while the other was anxious about hers. When given the choice, the students who rated highest in empathy gave more hot sauce to the woman who was more worried about her condition:
… the subjects chose to give more hot sauce to this other person when the student was described as distressed. Their empathy drove aggression, even when it made no moral sense.
One takes Bloom’s point, but perhaps the students believed that the whinier of the two women was more in need of a wake-up call. No one likes a whiner. The woman was not going to work her way out of a financial situation by wallowing in self-pity or worry.
If an empath is more sensitive to the whiner’s pain, he might resent her for inviting him to share it. Thus, he might want to give her more hot sauce in order to tell her to suck it up and act like an adult. I have not read the study, but I wonder whether the students would have acted differently if the impecunious subjects were male.
Of course, the impecunious women had not done anything wrong. So, I am not yet convinced that this experiment exists on the same continuum as the ones that ask empaths how they would respect to news of a terrorist atrocity or to stories about domestic abuse.
According to Bloom, those who are most empathetic are most likely to fprescribe the harshest punishment.
In Bloom’s words:
We start by giving people a simple test that measures their degree of empathy. Then we tell them some awful stories, about journalists kidnapped in the Middle East, about child abuse in the United States. And then we ask them how best to respond to those responsible for the suffering. In the Middle East case, we give a continuum of political options, from doing nothing to public criticism, all the way to a military ground invasion. For the domestic version, we ask about increased penalties for the abuser, from increasing their bail to making them eligible for the death penalty. Just as with the genetic study, we found that the more empathic people are, the more they want a harsher punishment.
It might be the case that those who have empathy are more likely to go with their gut and less inclined to engage in the ratiocination that would be required before choosing among different approaches.
If they identify themselves through their feelings, and take pride in their empathy, shining the light of reason on the situation would compromise their identity as empathetic individuals.
Keep in mind, it’s not just the outrage that counts here; it’s the way the empaths want to express the outrage. For all I know they have been taught by therapy to express their feelings, openly, honestly and shamelessly.
The benefits of war—including avenging those who have suffered—are made vivid, but the costs of war remain abstract and statistical. We see this same bias reflected in our criminal-justice system. The outrage that comes from empathy drives some of our most powerful punitive desires. It’s not an accident that so many statutes are named for dead girls—as in Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, and Caylee’s Law—and no surprise that there is now enthusiasm for “Kate’s Law.” The high incarceration rate in the United States, and our continued enthusiasm for the death penalty, is in part the product of fear and anger, but is also driven by the consumption of detailed stories of victims’ suffering.
Here, a few questions arise. True enough, our nation has gotten the idea that wars—especially without full mobilization-- are painless, that they only cost us money. But then, what other than a violent military action would have been the appropriate response to the attack on the World Trade Center. Serious countries do not allow their major cities to be half-destroyed with impunity.
Perhaps there were other, more intelligent, equally violent ways of responding. Yet, I find I difficult to believe that we invaded Afghanistan because of our enhanced capacity for empathy. Were we not motivated by a moral duty to protect the homeland and to punish those who violated it?
As for whether the costs of war are “abstract and statistical,” it depends. In some European countries, the costs of World War I were neither abstract nor statistical. In France, for example, the real cost—in human life-- of WW I caused the nation to be unprepared for a German attack. The alternative was surrender and collaboration with Nazi Germany.
I am not so sure that the nation is all that enthusiastic about the death penalty. Nineteen states do not allow it. But, to Bloom’s point, many of those who oppose the death penalty argue that lifetime imprisonment without the possibility of parole is more painful than the death penalty. This supports the idea that empaths have a strong sadistic side.
On the other hand, when evaluating the popularity of incarceration, one would need to ask oneself whether it produces a lower crime rate. If more incarceration means less crime, then perhaps it is a rational choice.
Be that as it may, when victims are involved, empaths are more likely to be sadistic, thus they are more likely to live by the law of the talion—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.