Monday, October 3, 2011

The God of Empathy

I have long opposed therapy’s worship of the great god Empathy.

Freud had Eros and Thanatos, gods of love and death. Known for his will to eroticize everything, Freud seems to have been on more intimate terms with the god of death.

Today’s therapist has gotten beyond love and death; he believes in Empathy. He doles it out like a panacea. He assumes that if we could feel everyone’s feelings we would have better relationships, more love in our lives, and more success in our careers.

Since psychopaths notoriously lack empathy, therapists assume that people who have empathy will naturally behave more morally.

And yet, David Brooks reminds us that there is no real correlation between empathy and good behavior.

In his words: “Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.”

He continues: “You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.”

Brooks quotes Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York on the latest research into the connection between empathy and good behavior.

Prinz said: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.”

Brooks concludes that “empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.”

Well said.

Since therapists consider empathy to be the cure to what ails you, one might conclude that therapy is in the business of producing “delicious moral emotions” without having to bother about how people act in the world.

If so, therapy is functioning within a theatrical world where the important thing is the emotions the drama provokes in the audience.

When it comes to acting morally in the real world, Brooks says that our ability to perform moral actions depends on our sense of duty and our ability to follow the rules that are contained in “sacred codes.”

With that I agree entirely.

In his words: “Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them. The code tells them that an adulterer or a drug dealer may feel ecstatic, but the proper response is still contempt.”

Codes tell you what to do and what not to do. They tell you when to do it and when not to.

Empathy does not. Existing merely as emotion, empathy tells you what to feel and when to feel it. It does not tell you anything about what to do or when to do it. 

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