Monday, May 13, 2013

The Trouble with Empathy

Longtime readers of this blog know that I have consistently found fault with the therapy culture’s obsession with empathy.

If you care about your mental hygiene you should be skeptical of anyone who recommends a one-size-fits-all cure for all of mankind’s ills.

Empathy mongers pretend that if we had more feeling for those more disadvantaged, we would naturally be inclined to offer them more help, more comfort and more solace.

More empathy, the tell us, would motivate us to help out. Invariably, they want us to fund the right government programs, to contribute to the right charities and to cease bullying our friends and neighbors.

For those who limit moral behavior to handing out charity to the less fortunate, empathy is the way to go. Without it, many contend, we would have no motive to do the good deeds that show how much we care.

Of course, there is a significant difference between actions that are supposed to show that we care… thus that provide us an opportunity to exhibit our empathy… and actions that really provide a benefit.

If a food aid program puts local farmers out of business its recipients will become dependent on the kindness of strangers. Do those who propose such programs show more or less empathy than do those who want to invest more in local agribusiness?

You can measure the effectiveness of programs far more easily than you can measure the state of the human heart.

We are so enamored of empathy that we take it as an article of faith that the human enterprise that raises people from poverty is less moral than the do-goodism that keeps people in it.

To recall a recent discussion, over the past thirty years that Chinese government has reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty from 84% to 16%. When it comes to feeding people, free market capitalism, Chinese style has done more than all of the world’s NGOs combined.

Were China’s leaders motivated by empathy or by a wish not to repeat he famine that Maoism loosed on the people in the early 1960s? Did they want to feed people because they wanted to hold on to power or because they felt for the poor? Did they want to cure extreme poverty because they wanted to restore national pride or because they felt badly for poor Chinese peasants? Did they care about the people or did they want to avoid the loss of face that would attend their failure to fulfill their duty?

Even if we grant the argument that empathy tells you to do something, it does not tell you what to do or how to do it. Empathy is no more than an inchoate feeling. It cannot and does not chart the most effective course of action. 

In today’s New Yorker Paul Bloom makes “The Case Against Empathy.” Offering a thoughtful review of the recent literature on the subject, most of which makes it into a panacea, he concludes that empathy’s powers have been overrated.

Those who argue for empathy note that people tend to react quickly and decisively when they see a child in danger. They tend to contribute generously to the human victims of a tragedy.

Yet, when the pain does not have a human face, and when we cannot see it within the context of a larger drama, we are less likely to act.

Bloom argues that this approach is limiting, and even deceiving. Most of the world’s suffering does not have a face attached. We can only see it in cold, dry statistics. If statistics show that  children are being killed in a war somewhere, we are less likely to care. If it’s our neighbor’s child we are more likely to care.

One is tempted to reply that perhaps it is normal for humans to care more for their own than for strangers. If your neighbor’s house is burning down, you do not ignore it in favor of malnutrition in South Asia.

It’s nice to think that the human species is one big happy family, but membership in family, community and nation is of vital importance. Cosmopolitanism is one of our grandest contemporary illusions.

Besides if you feel morally obligated to care for a stranger’s family you are also saying that the stranger is incompetent to care for his own.

Bloom recommends that we temper our enthusiasm for empathy with an appreciation for the role that reason plays in moral decision-making and moral action.

In his words:

If a planet of billions is to survive, however, we’ll need to take into consideration the welfare of people not yet harmed—and, even more, of people not yet born. They have no names, faces, or stories to grip our conscience or stir our fellow-feeling. Their prospects call, rather, for deliberation and calculation. Our hearts will always go out to the baby in the well; it’s a measure of our humanity. But empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.

Reason does not merely tell us that we ought to do something to alleviate human suffering. It guides us to develop a plan of action that will solve the problem and will not just make us feel better.

Excessive empathy does not help you to figure out the right thing to do. If you feel more empathy, you will be more likely to perform a spontaneous gesture that shows how much you care and less likely to think about what might work.

Those who believe that empathy will solve all problems base their argument on the fact that psychopaths feel no empathy. They should add, as Bloom does not, that great competitors rarely feel empathy for their opponents.

In a world where people compete in the arena or the marketplace empathy is a handicap.

Besides, if a friend feels badly about his inability to deal with a situation, your empathy will not really help him. If you need to be clear-headed to help him find a solution, feeling the way he feels when he can’t find one does not help.

In that circumstance, “I feel your pain” means: I have no idea about how to deal with it, either.

Famed empathy researcher Simon Baron-Cohen has noted the following:

Putting aside the extremes of psychopathy, there is no evidence to suggest that the less empathetic are morally worse than the rest of us. Simon Baron-Cohen observes that some people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, though typically empathy-deficient, are highly moral, owing to a strong desire to follow rules and insure that they are applied fairly.

One suspects that people who do the right thing gain satisfaction by knowing what the rules are and by following them correctly.


Anonymous said...

Feelings of pleasure and pain are the soil in which one learns to reason about the causes of life, life-pleasure, and pain. Remove emotion, and reason will not emerge.

Humanity suffers in part because mimetic desire, the need to ape patterns of behavior, dominates our development in early childhood. Without empathy and compassion we do not improve our ability to reason.

Rules that are made up by other apes may be "good" or "bad" ... as far as lifting the poor out of poverty if society does not redistribute the financial float of purchasing power it accumulates to the wealthy class rather than lifing up the middle class and poor.

How society can redistribute the wealth is through strong social influence toward charity (Jewish financial ethics) or taxes on the wealthy and unions, strong labor laws, federal transfers of purchasing power around the nation (United States circa 1950s and 1960s).

Bobbye said...

Anonymous; your name is Legion: why don't you at least come up with a ' fake' name so as to be distinguished from the one hundred million other Anonymouses? Perhaps it is because you are so full of it; hope you have hip waders on. China did not alleviate poverty by taking all of the non-existent rich Chinese's money and give it to the poor. Instead China allowed western wealth and jobs to come to China. The poor Chinese became employeed and thus rose out of poverty. Wow, what a concept! Capitalism, How evil. Too bad it works to rise the poor out of the muck.
"You can measure the effectiveness of programs far more easily than you can measure the state of the human heart."
This quote is what I really wanted to comment on. Jesus ,in Matthew 7, states " you shall know them by their fruits". the idea is to ' judge' by the results and not try to discern motive. A good idea will bring a good result, a bad idea a bad result. And ideas come from people.

Anonymous said...

China is building residential and commercial projects with no cash flow and no occupants. This is a bubble based on finance of investments by middle class who wish to be in the upper class. But there is no cash flow by a growing middle class to take up the mortgage debt from banks to provide a cash flow return from the investments. China is in a real estate bubble which has yet to burst based on ponzi finance. Sixty minutes (CBS) and Vice (HBO) have covered this topic.

Jesus performed the corporal works of mercy and told his followers to do the same. He told the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus which is a morality tale about the lack of empathy.

If causation is real then the means (action) and ends (outcome) are related by the causal model.

Compassionate leaders have always respected the fact that the means and the ends are related. Capitalism is not "free markets," it is a system of law and accounting recognizing private property and finance "rights" and "obligations." The financial rights to assets are matched by the liabilities of a counter-party, and if finance is unstable it disrupts the so-called "free market." The rich get richer until the debtor households cannot make the cash flow, the investment cycle stops, and wealth is redistributed through the financial instability of capitalism in any event.

Sam L. said...

It is hard to empathize with the one who wails, "Nobody loves me, everybody hates me; I'm going to go eat worms!"

Anon the 1st, I and many others believe that society should NOT redistribute wealth. Those that have some are encouraged to do what they can as charity. Government does not do charity.

I note, re Anon the 2nd, that many people are against/think badly of one who does good for a reason they disagree with. Such people are often called liberals.

Anonymous said...

I wrote both Anon 1 & 2 above.

The traditional questions of ethics are:

1. What is good for life?
2. How should one act to cause the good?

The cause of the good is the means the good sought to accomplish is the ends.

My evaluation of the good does not care if there are debate clubs that call themselves by this name or that name. I am interested in processing my emotions in the effort to determine what really is the greatest good? How do I act or influence others to act to cause it? What are the limits on my abiliity to do this?

Leo G said...

theicsso partOff topic, BUT WOW!

Dennis said...


If you are commenting about yourself and your responsibilities I am with you, but if you are absolving yourself by thinking that it is the government's responsibility to decide what is an is not other's responsibility for charity then we do not agree.
It is the individual's responsibility to one's fellow man not the government's that is what every person is judged. Charity is an individual trait.
The government is ultimately corruptible because it always seeks power where the individual has to want to be corrupt and that corruption affects that individual only. One answers for one's positive or negative actions.
Trying to influence the government so you can feel better about yourself is an abdication of personal responsibility. Influence other individuals.
Capitalism is a great if only we could get the government out of it. History is replete with examples of those who became rich who ultimate gave great sums of money through building libraries, museums, the Arts, cultural groups and foundations to aid others.

Anonymous said...

I am the only Anonymous poster here so far.

The government is organized by society to generate the public good. Markets are expected to provide for the private good.

Government is considered a necessary evil by persons who view markets as the cause of good, but others see evil in markets and government as the remedy. Observation shows that both positions have evidence of truth, although no amount of evidence is sufficient to determine a right or wrong perception because the problems are open-ended for each individual attempting to make a personal evaluation based on personal, not universal, experience.

Anonymous said...

Same Anon. as above here.

The problem with empathy is that it gets twisted through no fault of any individual but through the way we process emotions and are compelled to self-other communicate as a species. Even the scientists have failed to grasp the concept of fuzzy-emotional filters necessary to explain how some persons learn to associate pain inflicted on self or others with the generation of pleasure. The theory of fuzzy associative memory (FAM) provides a coherent explaination.

The Science of Evil

Anonymous said...

I am totally lost on this comment thread.

Anonymous, what is your point?


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Ditto, Tip.

Anonymous said...

Emotions are the source or origin of reason. It is impossible to reason without forming a causal idea that accompanies a feeling of pleasure or pain.

Compassion is the desire for self and others to be free from persistent pain or suffering. This is the positive side of empathy. The negative side of empathy is that a serial killer likes to kill creatures like oneself, and that a terrorist likes to terrorize a creature like oneself. Empathy is the driver of compassion and twisted modes of self-other communication.

If society regards it as compassionate the lift the poor out of poverty then the means and the ends are related. The free market generates unstable systems via the custom of finance, this instability redistributes the wealth in a bank panic anyway, so one should not regard "free markets" as the means to avoid a redistribution of wealth. Typically the middle class is hurt the most during a financial crisis of capitalism and this reverses the prior trend of lifting the poor out of poverty in a nation.