Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Virtues of Cold Blood

Sam Harris interviews famous anti-empathy researcher and author of the book "Against Empathy" Paul Bloom in his podcast. They start with the basic premise of Bloom's book, that most people see the benefits of empathy as being too obvious to even warrant any sort of justification, although the perceived value of empathy is highly suspect, and get into several other related areas.

The first hour or so goes into the limitations of empathy and our understanding of empathy. Bloom says that he is very careful to refer to what is essentially affective empathy, that is feeling the way someone else feels. He is also careful to distinguish between this and a general theory of mind (or the ability to imagine the feelings of others and why they would feel that way) and other sort of warm and fuzzy concepts like compassion, selflessness, social adroitness, sensitivity to the needs of others, etc. It turns out that when you isolate empathy as a concept and a personal characteristic, it actually doesn't do much at all. In fact, Bloom mentions at the end of the podcast that there have been meta analyses of studies done in which there is no apparent correlation between someone's degree of empathy and how nice or good of a person they are. In fact, they specifically mention someone's capacity for empathy and research done regarding the validity of the PCL-R which indicates that empathy does not really predict any sort of behavior, either good or bad behavior. Instead, other traits like past behavior and low or high impulse control do.

What empathy does accomplish is to make people susceptible to certain cognitive biases that lead them astray in their moral reasoning. This is discussed in probably the most relevant (and best) part of the discussion in the last 27 minutes or so, where Bloom addresses the question that many have raised to him -- ok, maybe empathy isn't the panacea that some claim it to be, but there's nothing wrong with it, is there? He mentions a few ways in which it can be very harmful. For instance, he argues that empathy is the reason why people will get so riled up over certain atrocities to the point where they want to commit other atrocities, e.g. a costly and violent war. Empathy is also the thing that will make those same people argue against the war that they voted as they hear stories of the collateral damage the war is causing. So essentially, high empathy people are just easily pushed from one extreme to the other with carefully selected personal stories that are designed to tug at heartstrings.

Empathy can also be highly irrational. For instance, he argues that in certain countries like India, the child beggars are almost all associated with huge criminal enterprises that exploit and even sometimes intentionally maim the children for financial gain. When people give money to these children, they're facilitating these efforts. Bloom tells the story of relating this to someone on a radio show, to which the woman responded essentially "but I like giving to children -- it makes me feel good. I feel connected to them". His rejoinder -- it depends on what you want, if you want these children's lives to be better, then don't give to them.

The first and last parts of the podcast are good. In the middle, they go off on this really random tangent in which Bloom seems to be contradicting his own argument. Specifically, Bloom argues that he wouldn't want to feel an expansive universal love, the type to which many buddhist meditation practitioners (such as Sam Harris) seek to achieve. Bloom explains that although love may not have limits, everyone has limited time and resources to spend, and if Bloom loved everyone, maybe he wouldn't spend as much time and effort on his own family. The argument is so odd because he is essentially arguing that the feelings of preferential love are necessary for him to behave in this way that he has prioritized for himself, i.e. preferential treatment of his family over starving orphans in Africa. But this is almost exactly the argument that empathy proponents make about empathy -- that it is a useful or necessary emotional tool in getting to a desired outcome of good behavior. Bloom's position is that empathy is not necessary or even that helpful because rational behavioral constructs and choices are much more efficient at achieving the desired outcome of moral behavior. But if one can just think their way to moral behavior, how couldn't one think their way to giving preferential treatment to their family, despite loving the whole of humanity equally? Oddly he doesn't seem to see any contradiction there. Am I just imagining one? Another odd thing, he basically kills his own argument by arguing that rational thinking (e.g., in this situation, utilitarianism) could easily come up with his desired outcome of preferential treatment to his family because it is more efficient for him to feed his own children than orphans in Africa. Still, he doesn't budge on his position. Does anyone have any insight into this? It truly makes me think less of him and his arguments and academia in general, so if someone has a better explanation for what he is trying to say, I'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


I was reading this passage by David Whyte on vulnerability and wondered, do sociopaths experience vulnerability ever?

Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is a lovely illusionary privilege and perhaps the prime and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but it is a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.

I think the answer must be that they do in fact experience vulnerability, in the sense that this in this life no one or nothing is invulnerable. I think to the extent that they feel it, it must be like so many of their feelings -- dull and contextless and over just as quickly as the experience that produced it is over. There are probably exceptions. I certainly have felt a little... traumatized? I guess is the word I am thinking. Gun shy? After some of the more serious setbacks I have experienced, I have experienced a more pronounced awareness of my vulnerability in the world -- a lack of ability to predict, to control, or to deal with what's happening to me. So yes, definitely a situational awareness style awareness of vulnerability in the sense that we're all mortals. And what about an emotional vulnerability?

Monday, December 19, 2016

What's wrong with stigma?

One (I hope) good thing to come of the current political climate is that it shows the limits of stigma or social shaming in changing people or behavior. I've written before about this, but it's still very hard for me to understand why people do it or what they hope to accomplish with it. I can't help but thing it's just an evolutionary quirk that didn't get programmed in my own wiring because seemingly otherwise decent people will engage in outrageous and cruel behavior as long as their target is someone they perceive as being "bad" (in their opinion). 

From an Atlantic article entitled "How Stigma Sows Seeds of Its Own Defeat":

In “Too Much Stigma, Not Enough Persuasion,” I argued that the coalition that opposes Donald Trump needs to get better at persuading its fellow citizens and winning converts, rather than leaning so heavily on stigmatizing those who disagree with them. With Trump’s victory in mind, I wrote that among the many problems with relying too heavily on stigma rather than persuasion is that it just doesn’t work.

Noah Millman and Matt Yglesias have smart insights on the same subject.

And one of my readers, Maxwell Gottschall, has a useful coda that applies not just to opposing Donald Trump, but to the larger defense of the liberal project, the constitutional order, and republican government.  Sure, he acknowledged, wielding stigma is often ineffective. But even when it does work to achieve ends that liberals favor, like undermining support for racism or authoritarian demagogues, stigma achieves those victories in a relatively weak, dangerously tenuous manner.

As he put it:
Stigmatization of an idea, by design, intends to convert, not persuade, by bypassing reason and going right for our tribal desire to fit in. But I think the rarely noted effect of this conversion happening is that it robs the converted of the tools to persuade others going forward.  In other words, if you haven't been persuaded by the merits of a political idea, how do you persuade others? You can't without resorting to the same sort of stigmatizing argument. 
This, I think, at least partially explains the left's staleness over the past two years, and the cultural center-left elite's utter shock at the inadequacy of its invincible ascendant coalition. Stigmatization doesn't just turn off perfectly good people who aren't racists but supported Trump (as a blasé example). And it doesn't just make you complacent (which it does). I think it actively contributes to ideological rot.
The problem is that if social shaming is really an evolutionary quirk, all the evidence in the world about its inefficacy is not going to stop people from engaging in it.  The problem is not really in getting to see that stigmas can often often be unhelpful or destructive. Every side seems to have stigmas that they think are unwarranted or unhelpful (e.g. stigmas against gay marriage, having children out of wedlock). However, they also have stigmas that they think are absolutely necessary (e.g. stigmas against perceived homophobia, stigmas against having welfare babies). 

I'd personally love to have people stop stigmatizing things. That seems to me the cleanest, fairest, most efficient, and most beneficial solution. But that's like saying we should stop war. Given that's not going to happen, I guess the only thing left for us to do is to hide those parts of us that would be stigmatized or try to change minds? I honestly wouldn't blame anyone for doing the former. 
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