Monday, May 16, 2011

Empathy Galore

How do you sell a bad idea?

Would you first call in an ad man, an expert in the art of selling soap to the unsuspecting masses?

Or would you call an academic research scientist, someone whose love of knowledge is so pure that you would never mistake him for a mere creative director?

As it happens, most academic intellectuals are seriously involved in selling their ideas. Many of them are also hard at work selling their cultural values.

Unfortunately, many of these ideas are unserious,  the kinds that no sentient individual would believe. Yet, once they are given the imprimatur of science we feel compelled to accept them, even to embrace them.

If the ideas involve human behavior and human cultures, then their purveyors will now wrap them in the trappings of cognitive neuroscience.

They will make them all sound like scientifically proven explanations for human behavior. In truth, they are often indoctrinating you in their beliefs, opinions, and values.

The authority granted to what is written in Scripture or in the great books has ceded its place to what is inscribed in your genes.

Recently, we were told that there are genes that control good behavior and genes that control bad behavior. Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen has just written a book where he shows that some genes make us cruel and other genes make us empathic. See Matt Ridley’s article here.

(As a sidelight, this supposedly scientific research can easily induce people to abandon any notion of free will.)

If you are trying to sell this dubious idea in your latest book, then you need to apply it to current events. After that, you will make a special appeal to everyone’s inner child.

What could be more timely or more topical than Osama bin Laden. Everyone believes that OBL was a very cruel man, indeed. Of course, there are more than a handful of people in this world who did not think that bin Laden was cruel, but those do not belong to your target audience.

Next, pretend that you can find the specific area of the brain and the specific genes that make people cruel. Then you need but recommend that everyone be tested for this genetic malformation, thereby moving one step closer to ridding the world of psychopathic monsters.

Of course, this would involve accusing people of being cruelty-prone, even before they had done anything very cruel. The legal difficulties are manifold, manifest, and none too pretty, either.

Supposedly, science also tells us that empathy is the basis for all human morality because creatures with more empathy are nicer and less cruel. Therefore, researchers have happily found a way to enhance what they have called everyone’s “Empathy Quotient.”

(Calling it an “empathy quotient,” makes it sound like an “intelligence quotient,” thereby giving it the appearance of something that we can measure scientifically.)

How then do you enhance everyone’s empathy? Matt Ridley reports that Prof. Baron-Cohen and Prof. Patricia Churchland agree on how to go about this: “Both authors note in passing the startling discovery that it seems to be possible to raise people's empathy by squirting the hormone oxytocin up their noses.

That’s a strange way of expressing it...

We all know that oxytocin, aka, the cuddle hormone, is associated with female sexual response. When women make love they secrete extra oxytocin and this makes them feel that they want to get closer to their lover, hug and cuddle, and even have a relationship.

Oxytocin is the reason why casual sex does not work for most women.

Now, we have also learned, on the best so-called scientific authority, that if we want to be more loving and less cruel, we should all learn to feel as women feel when they are having carnal relations.

Since the scientists know, but do not say, that the cruelty gene must be more prevalent or dominant in the male of the species, they are recommending that men become more like women.

If they had put it in those terms, you would not take them very seriously. You would not even consider that their research results were really science.

That is why they throw a bunch of genes and unproven assumptions at you and pretend that their conclusions are settled science.

Next, the researchers suggest-- here is where they are trying to appeal to your inner child-- that this oxytocin squirt will rid the world of violence and bring forth a new reign of world peace. If only we felt more empathy, we would be less cruel, less violent, less aggressive, and so much nicer.

I daresay that only a child would be naive enough to believe such a bunch of tommyrot, but, there you have it, a dumb idea, wrapped in science, made relevant to current events, appealing to our fondest infantile wishes.

If you don’t believe it, you are colluding with those who want to foist more Osama bin Ladens on the world.

At least, the ad men and women who are selling soap are honest about what they are selling.

There is something profoundly dishonest about scientists who pretend that their own cultural values are scientific fact.

As for the practical side, do you imagine that you will be able to force everyone, especially every male, on the planet to take a daily squirt of oxytocin?

Given that those who receive this squirt are going to be less aggressive, they will quickly be overpowered by those who have not received it, the latter being more aggressive and cruel.

Or else, ask yourself this: did the Navy SEALs who shot Osama bin Laden in the face show empathy? Were they being cruel? Ought we, as part of their training, to give Navy SEALs a squirt of oxytocin, the better to reduce their tendencies to cruelty?

Only the most naive among us can fail to notice that when countries fight wars, both sides must have a sufficient empathy deficit to be able to do what it takes to win. Only a child would believe that the world will ever be entirely free of wars or aggression or cruelty.

Try another example. Think about that linebacker who is about to lay a crushing hit on the running back. How high do you think his empathy quotient is? Would you recommend that he takes an oxytocin squirt up his nose every time he goes out on the field?

Or do you think that we should ban football because it is too cruel for your delicate sensibilities? But then, where do you draw the line. Some people believe that you are showing great cruelty when you scramble some eggs?

And what about the entrepreneur who is competing for some new business. Do you believe that he should feel more empathy for his competition? Do you imagine that he should feel their pain? Do you think that he should feel the pain they are going to feel when they lose the account?  Do you think that this will make him more competitive, a harder worker, and a greater success?

So far, this all sounds very much of a man’s perspective. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

So, here is an example from coaching that looks at this famous empathy from a different angle. Today Alina Dizik wrote a column about how you can stand up to a rude co-worker. Link here.

Dizik is right to emphasize that when you have been abused by a co-worker’s rudeness, it is a good idea to consult with a friend, or even a coach.

Executive coach Martha Newman explains that a friend can help you to start brainstorming. She then identifies a distinct advantage that your friend has: "Unlike you, they won't be feeling anger, pain or humiliation, and will be able to give you sound, objective advice."

A friend or a coach can help you in a difficult situation precisely because he or she is lacking in empathy If your anger, pain, or humiliation is preventing your from discovering a more rational approach to the problem, then the last thing you want is a friend or coach who is feeling your pain. Empathy would make the other person as dysfunctional as you are.

By the by, this explains why therapists who traffic in empathy have so much difficulty giving objective advice.

The larger issue is articulated by Prof. Churchland. Ridley summarizes her point: “With a series of examples, she rejects the idea that morality is a set of rules and codes handed down from on high, without which we would all behave badly.” In her view morality is natural to the human species, especially as a function of empathy.

Think about what the professor is saying. She is proposing that we should be ruled by sentiment, by good feelings, by the kinds of warm and cozy and cuddly emotions that women feel after sex.

She is quite correct to see humans as social animals, but she fails to note that ethical behavior is determined by your ability to follow a set of rules and codes. You cannot rationally base human connections on sentiments because sentiments, even the kindest and most loving variety, are not lingua franca. No one but you ever knows what you really feel.

Social connections are based on public behaviors. You connect with other people in society through table manners, dress codes, and common rituals.

Since these vary from group to group, we can deduce that belonging to a group means knowing and practicing that group’s rules and codes.

Since empathy is presumably a universal sentiment it cannot be the basis for your belonging to this or to that group. Good manners in one group are bad manners in another.

People who find themselves in new social groups, in groups where they do not know the rules or the codes, suffer from social anomie. You cannot cure someone of social anomie by feeling his pain.

While Churchland is correct to see human beings as social beings, she has failed to understand that only a set of common customs can produce the connection, and that a group is always competing with other groups.

Those who compete successfully, for status within the group or for status among groups, are probably not those who have been squirting oxytocin up their collective noses.


Anonymous said...

We already ARE ruled by people who are ruled by their emotions. They're called Liberals.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Very true... he problem is that they don't even know it's a problem.