Long have I inveighed against the psycho world’s mania about empathy. Here I do feel more like a prophet than a latecomer.
On this blog and in my book The Last Psychoanalyst I have argued that psycho professionals are obsessed with empathy because they believe, by twisted reasoning, that if we all felt empathy there would be no more violence and no more war. It’s part of the profession’s feminization program.
The professionals have reasoned that since psychopaths presumably do not feel any empathy for their victims, if we could inject them with empathy they the milk of human kindness would be coursing through their veins. Thus, they would act more kindly and would be less likely to rob, loot, pillage, rape and murder.
What could possibly be wrong with that?
For one, as Yale psychologist Paul Bloom discovered, when you are feeling the feelings of someone who is being abused, you are less likely to feel sympathy and more likely to want to retaliate against the abuser. I discussed the issue in my post on “Sadistic Empaths.”
Since Bloom discovered the concept in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments it is fair to say that it has been around for a while. Smith preferred that we exercise reason in making decisions, thus, that we not go with our guts.
To keep things interesting I would add this point. Let’s say that you want someone to feel what you are feeling. After all, if empathy is a magical elixir, why would you not want to help other people to expand their capacity for it?
Let’s imagine that someone just punched you in the face. You are feeling some considerable pain. How would you ensure, to a certainty, that your assailant could feel the same pain that he has inflicted on you? Easy, you punch him in the face. It’s called the law of the talion, a primitive scheme for ensuring justice, embodied in the phrase: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Could anything be more empathetic? To me this suggests that the mania about empathy is a retrograde effort to return to a primitive scheme of justice, one that relieves you of the need to think about how you respond to aggression and abuse.
Now, as we await the arrival of Bloom’s new book, Against Empathy, we note some remarks that the estimable Melissa Dahl has written for New York Magazine.
Dahl opens with the argument for empathy. Apparently, those who have dreamed up this argument have the emotional maturity and critical judgment that you find in viewers of Sesame Street:
And it does seem obvious that if you can feel what someone else is feeling, you’ll be more likely to act with kindness toward them. That’s why empathy is typically seen as a cornerstone of a moral life, as it’s understood to motivate prosocial behaviors like cooperating, volunteering, sharing, or donating money. It’s no wonder, then, that a recent report led by Sesame Workshop — the nonprofit group behind the kids’ show — found that most teachers would rather their students had empathy than basic manners.
The Sesame Street crowd believes that we cooperate with people because we feel what they are feeling. Enamored as they are of their mind-centered model they assume, unthinkingly, that having the right feelings, the feelings that they approve of, will naturally lead you to become more generous and to vote Democratic.
Yet, one is shocked to see that these teachers prefer that children develop empathy ahead of basic manners. One suspects that they are thinking with their guts, because good manners are a primary way to show someone consideration and respect.
These teachers do not understand that manners are a language you need to learn. You learn or do not learn how to behave well toward others. You can be polite and write a thank you note without feeling the right feeling. If you don't write the note you are an ingrate, regardless of how you feel. If the report is correct and most teachers ignore the need to teach good manners, this tells us why many young people are enslaved to their emotions and are lacking in good manners.
Yale researchers, led by Bloom, draw a distinction between feeling what someone is feeling and caring about what someone else is feeling.
All of which helps make a new study, published earlier this fall in the journal Emotion, so interesting. In it, a trio of researchers from Yale University draws a distinction between empathy, or feeling what someone else is feeling, and concern, or caring about what someone else is feeling —what you might call sympathy. (One of the three researchers is Paul Bloom, the Yale psychologist whose book, Against Empathy, will be published later this year.) In three experiments, they find that while concern reliably predicts helpful behaviors, such as donating money, empathy does not always do so. In their words, “empathy and concern are psychologically distinct and empathy plays a more limited role in our moral lives than many believe.” In other words: You can behave kindly toward someone even if you aren’t personally buoyed by their happiness, or dragged down by their sadness. Feeling another person’s emotions is nice, but it may not be as necessary as you think.
“Taken together, these three studies suggest that feeling what others feel is psychologically distinct from caring about what others feel,” the authors write in their conclusion, adding that “caring about what others feel is a much stronger motivator of prosocial thoughts and actions than feeling what others feel.” You don’t have feel like doing something in order to do it.
He added that this new study provides “fresh evidence that you don’t need to feel other people’s emotions — you just need to care about their well-being.”
True enough, and the point cannot be stressed enough, you do not have to feel like doing something in order to do it. Believing that you need to be in the right state of mind before you can do the right thing or believing that once you arrive at the right state of mind you will naturally do the right thing is one of the most pernicious myths in the world of psychotherapy. It allows therapists to abrogate their responsibilities to help their patients learn how to conduct their lives.
The problem is: knowing the right thing to do is not as simple as knowing that you need to show benevolence. When someone offends you and you feel angry how should you respond? Will your emotions and your sense of kindness be a sufficient guide?
When it comes to sending a thank-you note, behaving courteously and politely, showing tact and consideration, and knowing how to deal with insults and slights… your state of mind will be of little use if you have not learned and practiced the proper behaviors.
It is certainly true that you do not need to feel the right feeling to do the right thing. Surely, when you receive advice you can learn what the right thing is and might even be able to do it… without even knowing why you are doing it.