Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Case for Empathy

In his spare time, while not pursuing his graduate work at Harvard, Nathan J.Robinson edits a magazine called Current Affairs. Like most graduate students, Robinson is smug beyond human endurance. Apparently, there’s a market for smugness these days, so who am I to call him out on it.

Recently, Robinson, whose bailiwick is sociology, waded into the empathy wars. Specifically, he took on the work of Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, a man who has written a book called: Against Empathy.

Robinson is seriously torqued over the way Bloom analyzes empathy. He is especially upset that Bloom does not recognize the way the term is used in everyday psycho theorizing, where it refers to the capacity to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to affirm our common humanity and to feel for them. 

By Robinson’s lights and by the lights of most psycho professionals we would cure our capacity for abuse by feeling for other people. Of course, he vaguely recognizes that you cannot win a war if you start feeling for the enemy and recognize his common humanity, but with the wide-eyed optimism that one should have outgrown as soon as one is old enough to vote, he adds that more empathy will make the world more peaceful and loving. No one will compete; no civilizations will clash; we will all live in peace and harmony.

If this means losing wars, or losing football games or losing out in economic competition, it does not matter. The grad student wants to create a world where people all love each other and where, by a peculiar non-sequitur, we end up knowing who we are:

…a soldier who empathizes with the enemy won’t be able to shoot, and lives will be lost. And that may be right. But if we’re ever to actually eliminate war, to create a world based on mutual understanding, it’s vital for everyone to realize that the planet is filled with nothing but fellow creatures, that we’re all just holding our trousers up. Not only is empathy a “good thing,” but until we learn to empathize, we will never truly know who we are.

By his own testimony Robinson is enraged that Bloom did not write:

a beautiful manifesto for loving and understanding each other. 

We appreciate his willingness to show us the workings of the mind of a graduate student, but still… if you take the Robinson view of empathy out into a world where people compete and contend and even fight, you will find yourself on the losing side.

Bloom, who is decidedly not a graduate student, understands empathy correctly. It refers to the capacity to feel the pain of other people, as Bill Clinton famously said. Most especially, as Bloom has argued, in following Adam Smith, if you see someone who is unjustly humiliated in public, your empathy for the person will cause you to want to avenge his pain. And this form of empathy will make you someone who mindlessly inflicts pain on others. I called such people sadistic empaths. Robinson missed the point.

In effect, Bloom is being theoretically rigorous. Anyone who wants to analyze human psychology should be rigorous. Robinson conflates empathy with compassion and sympathy. He does not seem to understand that feeling someone else’s feelings is not the same as feeling for someone else.

But even here, Bloom is misleading: the thing he calls “empathy” throughout the book has little to do with our ordinary use of the term. Bloom says “empathy” is not the same thing as “compassion,” even though many people understand the word that way. In fact, Bloom’s definition of empathy is downright peculiar: he makes clear that what he is condemning is “emotional empathy,” by which he means “feeling what other people are feeling.” He distinguishes this from “cognitive empathy,” which he defines as trying to understand other people’s perspectives.

To those of us, like myself, who argue that people should generally have “more empathy” for one another, Bloom’s version of “empathy” is unrecognizable. I have always understood empathy to mean “trying to imagine what it is like to be other people” so that we can compassionately understand where they are coming from. But Bloom defines it as literally feeling other people’s emotions, suffering when they suffer, being distressed when they are distressed, etc. It’s possible to frame these two definitions so that they seem similar: both can be described using the expression “put yourself in another person’s shoes.” But the version in which we literally feel as if we are other people takes us far afield from the term’s everyday usage.

Robinson is unhappy that Bloom prefers rigor to sloppy thinking. He continues his jeremiad, that is, his extended whine:

Because Bloom defines empathy as “experiencing what other people experience” rather than “imagining other people’s experiences for the purposes of better understanding and caring about them,” he is able to offer absurd caricatures of the pro-empathy position. He suggests that an “empathetic doctor” would be a bad doctor, because an empathetic doctor would be in pain while their patients were in pain, and this would inhibit their ability to offer good treatment. But does anyone who advocates having empathetic doctors believe they should literally feel as if they have whatever ailment the patient has? The point is not that you should literally experience what another person does (partly because, in the absence of swapping bodies, it’s not actually possible to experience someone else’s experiences), but that you may be better at caring for someone if you have gone through the exercise of imagining what it might be like to be them. Similarly, Bloom points out that we can “be concerned about starving people without having a vicarious experience of starving,” and that if we comfort a child who is afraid of a thunderstorm or a barking dog, we don’t literally need to be afraid of thunderstorms and barking dogs. For Bloom, the fact that we are not experiencing starvation or fear when we think about people who are hungry or afraid means that “there’s no empathy there.” That’s only true, though, if we adopt his bizarre definition of empathy. Of course, it’s true that if I comfort my child during a thunderstorm, I don’t need to be afraid of thunderstorms myself, and if I worry about starvation, I don’t need to feel hungry. But in order to understand why I should care about fear and hunger, it might help if I thought about what it feels like for a person who is experiencing those things. Pro-empathy people like myself do not advocate actually trying to become afraid of thunderstorms in order to understand how small children feel about them, but rather spending time remembering what it is like to be a small, scared child, in order to appreciate why thunderstorms might frighten them.

Actually, a good doctor does not need to feel anyone’s pain. His job is to diminish the pain by treating or curing the illness. Strangely, Robinson seems to miss this point. You do not need to have had cancer to treat cancer. And while a physician will certainly feel for his patient, the more he tries to feel what his patient is feeling, the less he will be an effective physician. A therapist does not need to be depressed to treat depression. He needs to know the best way to help the patient. If your patient feels helpless you do not do him any favors by feeling his helplessness.

Robinson writes:

He [Bloom] sticks to his belief that an empathetic psychotherapist would be a psychotherapist who actually has depression, rather than a psychotherapist who has previously had depression or who seems to appreciate what it is like to be depressed. The latter, he says, has “nothing to do with” empathy, even though it’s the only version of the idea of the “empathetic psychotherapist” that even makes any sense. Bloom says that when we talk about empathy as simply “understanding other minds,” we are talking about something called “cognitive empathy,” which is different from the “emotional empathy” he is against. “Cognitive” empathy, he says, is morally neutral: it’s what psychopaths, con men, and seducers do, since they “understand” the workings of other people’s minds very well indeed. But since people who advocate that kind of empathy also advocate being a compassionate person, it’s hard to see how this matters.

Robinson is recommending that we feel humanely sensitive when someone else’s child has been killed. Who would disagree with that? Yet, sympathy and compassion involve feeling for the other person. If empathy  enters the equation one might also feel angry with whoever or whatever it was that caused the child’s death.

Robinson offers:

Empathy, in the sense in which people advocate it, is not a plea for people to weep when they see others weeping, but to better appreciate what it is like to weep. It is not, as Bloom says, that when somebody else’s child is killed I literally feel as if my own child has been killed. It is that I do my best to imagine what the experience is like for the person experiencing it, so that I am able to deal sensitively and humanely with the person who is going through it.

Robinson’s grad school version of empathy tells us that we should feel what it is like to be other people. He must know that Bloom effectively argued against that position when he took on the empathy you feel for someone who has been wronged. And besides, ethical behavior requires you to learn codes of correct behavior. You cannot know who you really are unless and until you know to which groups you belong.

After all, you cannot communicate with other people by having a mind meld, by trying to become one with their feelings. You need a medium, like language and table manners, to function within a group. Despite what the bright eyed grad student thinks, we are not all bathing in the same humanity. We belong to different social groups. We learn correct behavior because we identify as members of a group. One imagines that universalist thinkers want us all to relate by using a universal language of feelings, but in truth empathy has little to do with the way people relate to each other in society.

Apparently, Robinson wants us all to be citizens of the world, of a world without borders and boundaries. You recognize the underpinnings of certain immigration policies:

The aim is to get a real sense of the diversity of human perspectives, and to remind ourselves that other people experience consciousness just like we do. Empathy isn’t a moral philosophy in and of itself, it’s a technique for acquiring a better sense of the world as it really is.

We can only wonder how he knows that different people, belonging to different communities, following different moral codes and even different sumptuary codes, experience consciousness just like we do? It is an absurd notion, one that requires a leap into a conceptual void.

Robinson is look forward to a world community of people who are not identifiable by their membership in a group. As I said, he thinks like a grad student.

But the more I realize that others truly are just slightly different versions of myself, that they have dreams, itches, and fears just like I do, that they have eyeballs, teeth, and an anus just like I do, that they must fumble their way through the bewildering process called life just as I must, the more I begin to feel a powerful and moving sense of community, one that I believe is essential for creating a peaceful and mutually supportive world. 

The only word for this is: bullshit.


JP said...

"The point is not that you should literally experience what another person does (partly because, in the absence of swapping bodies, it’s not actually possible to experience someone else’s experiences),"

You kind of can "experience someone else's experiences." You just need one of a pair of cojoined twins with what amounts to a thalmic bridge connecting your brains.

Jack Fisher said...

…a soldier who empathizes with the enemy won’t be able to shoot, and lives will be lost. And that may be right.

... said no one to a Jew fighting Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto

James said...

"…a soldier who empathizes with the enemy won’t be able to shoot" After the first 1/2 second of hot contact that is rarely a problem.

Jack Fisher said...

also, the first time a kid gets punched in the nose by a bully and finds another use for a baseball bat knows that pacifism is bullshit.

James said...

Heh, Louisville Slugger.

Christopher B said...

Solipsism. He pays lip service to the idea that people are unique but can't imagine that everyone isn't exactly like him.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

With a passive philosophy like Robinson’s, you might as well take no initiative at all. That’s what all this empathic stuff leads to: no initiative. The result is stasis. But stasis occurs nowhere in nature. The world is constantly moving. I’m sure Robinson says we should be empathetic towards nature. There’s the contradiction: nature cannot actively reciprocate. No conscious initiative. No choice. Oh, that’s right... free will is a bunch of bullshit. After all, science says...

Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ares Olympus said...

I guess the question is whether you want to be more perfect than a tax collector.

Matthew 5:43-48
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect

OTOH, we have fake quote from Churchill "You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life."

In any case, what does it means to love your enemy? It might not necessarily imply a need for empathy.

But what else could it mean? Consideration? Respect? Compassion? Dignity? But how do you give those, if not through empathy and perspective taking?

Jack Fisher said...

love of enemies does not preclude righteous justice, which is why we don't bayonet the wounded.