Sunday, 14 May 2017

Empathy is like cholesterol ...

... with a good type and a bad type.
I did a Coursera course on morality by Paul Bloom several years ago, so I was already familiar with his work when I requested 'Against Empathy' from the library. Just to reassure you the book is not an argument for cold hard logic and that human beings should not feel compassion for each other, just that empathy is often not the panacea for decision making (both personal and political) that it is often made out to be. He does say at the beginning that 'Empathy plus reason makes a great combination' is a less snappy and provocative title.

The book lays out definitions and explanations of the role of empathy in human relations, and the way our thinking about empathy is related to our thinking about morality; is it necessary to have empathy to be good, are empathic people 'better' people? In examining its definition he begins to outline what he sees as the weaknesses of empathy as a guide for human action, how it can make us behave morally, but it need not. Here he gives a literary example from The Island of Doctor Moreau, where a character hears the screaming of a suffering animal:

"This has been cited as an example of the moral force of felt experience and the power of empathy. But what does Prendick do? He leaves. He goes for a walk to escape the noise, finds a space in the shade, and takes a nap.
So if vicarious suffering were the sole outcome of empathy, empathy would be mostly useless as a force for helping others. There is almost always an easier way to make your empathic suffering go away than the hard work of making someone else's life better: Turn the page. Look away. Cover your ears. Think of something else. Take a nap." (p.75)

In the next chapter he looks more closely at empathy as something that leads to 'doing good', and how doing good for one person can often ignore the effects it has on others:

"This sort of effect takes us back to the metaphor of empathy as a spotlight. The metaphor captures a feature of empathy that is fans are quick to emphasise - how it makes visible the suffering of others, makes their troubles real, salient, and concrete. From the gloom, something is seen. Someone who believes we wouldn't help if it weren't for empathy might see its spotlight nature as its finest aspect,
But the metaphor also illustrates empathy's weaknesses. A spotlight picks out a certain space to illuminate and leaves the rest in darkness; its focus is narrow. What you see depends on where you choose to point the spotlight, so its focus is vulnerable to your biases.
Empathy is not the only facet of our moral lives that has a spotlight nature. Emotions such as anger, guilt, shame, and gratitude are similar. But not all psychological processes are limited in this way. We can engage in reasoning, including moral reasoning, that is more abstract. We can make decisions based on considerations of costs and benefits or through appealing to general principles. Presumably this is what people who choose not to move Sheri Summers up the list were doing - they weren't zooming in on her, but rather taking a more distanced perspective. Now one might worry that this less emotional perspective is too cold and impersonal - maybe the right metaphor for this type of impartial reasoning is the ugly illumination of florescent light." (p.87)

I ended up feeling as if he made the same argument several times over, phrasing it differently and citing different examples to make very similar points. Sometimes it was also a case of trying to show how non-empathic based decisions are often equally 'moral', as in this example about the arguments over slavery:

"Carlyle has a specific issue in mind, a case where he wanted to ridicule economists for objecting to something that was the subject of considerable feeling and heart, something that Carlyle had defended with great emotion.
What was this issue the economists were being so negative about? Slavery. Carlyle was upset because the economists were against slavery. He argued for the reintroduction of slavery in the West Indies and was annoyed that the economists railed against it. Think about this when you're tempted to scorn economists and the cool approach they take to human affairs, and when you hear people equating strong feelings with goodness and cold reason with nastiness. in the real world, as we've seen the truth is usually the opposite." (p.112)

He even gets right down to genetics in his argument, explaining how supposed having 'selfish' genes does not mean the same thing as selfish human beings:

"Genes that cause a person to sacrifice his life in order to help three brothers or nine cousins would have an advantage over genes that caused a person to save himself at all costs. The 'goals' of natural selection transcend our bodies. So, strange as it might seem, selfish genes create altruistic animals, motivating kindness towards others." (p.169)

I think he makes a good case for the fact that 'empathy' and 'morality' are often confused in the way people talk and think about human behaviour. So much of what we do, and also how we think about what other people do is dictated by our own perception of situations and behaviours:

"the moralisation gap leads to a natural escalation of reprisals, both at the everyday level - disputes among friends, siblings, spouses - and at the level of international conflict. You do something nasty to me, and this seems so much nastier (more significant, unjustified, just meaner) to me than it does to you. And when I retaliate in what I see as an appropriate and measured way, it seems disproportionate to you, and you respond accordingly, and so on." (p.182)

"It shouldn't be surprising that morality can incite violence. Morality leads to action; it gets you to stick your nose in other people's business. I don't like raisins. But this isn't a moral belief, so it just means that I don't eat raisins; it doesn't motivate me to harass others who behave differently than I do towards raisins. I also don't like murder. But this is a moral belief, so it motivates me to try and stop others from doing this, to encourage the government to punish them, and so on. In this way, moral beliefs motivate action, including violent action." (p.185)

I felt like the book almost became an argument against 'gut reactions' and in favour of reason. Empathy becomes another way of saying that people respond to how they 'feel' about a situation rather than thinking through what might be the best course of action. I don't think that Bloom is arguing that we should not be helping others or responding to emergency situations, but we should be honest about why we do things. Sometimes people respond empathically because it makes them feel better as much as it might be doing good for the person they empathise with. Recently the US dropped bombs on an air base in Syria, and Trump put on a big show of empathising with the victims of the chemical weapons attack; I didn't believe him for a minute, since every one of his other policies shows no interests is helping the victims fleeing the ongoing conflict there. Empathy is something that is so easy to manipulate, to appeal to people's innate empathy to justify policy is just the kind of thing that Bloom is arguing against. The book is an excellent argument for something that in some ways is bleeding obvious: life is mostly much more complicated than it appears and solutions to problems are rarely simple. The same people who donate money to famine relief because they see starving children on the television will often vote for government policies that exacerbate the economic, environmental and political situation that causes the starvation. Empathy so often offers only a short term fix. One last quote, just because he sums up a political dilemma quite neatly. The book is thoughtful, well researched and intelligently argued, certainly well worth a read.

"Unless I'm a member of a tiny powerful community, my beliefs have no effect on the world. This is certainly true as well for my views about the flat tax, global warming, and evolution. They don't have to be grounded in truth, because the truth value doesn't have any effect on my life.
I am unhappy making this argument, because my own moral commitments lean me towards the perspective that it's important to try to be right about issues even if they don't matter in a practical sense. I would be horrified if one of my sons thought that our ancestors rode dinosaurs, even though I can't think of a view that matters less for everyday life. I would feel similarly if he supported ridiculous claims as true just because they fit his political ideology. We should try to believe true things.
But that's just me. Others see things differently. My point is just that the failure of people to attend to data in the political domain does not reflect a limitation of their capacity for reason. It reflects how most people make sense of politics. They don't care about truth because, for them, it's not really about truth." (p.237)

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