Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The downside of empathy

The author of the "Moral Life of Babies," Paul Bloom, writes for the New Yorker, "The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy." He first talks briefly about the origins of the word empathy and the science behind it. He then lists several recent books about how great empathy is and how lack of empathy is essentially responsible for the world's evil, concluding

This enthusiasm may be misplaced, however. Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.

Why? First, it causes us to over-focus on problems with names and faces and ignore problems that are represented only by faceless statistics:

The key to engaging empathy is what has been called “the identifiable victim effect.” As the economist Thomas Schelling, writing forty-five years ago, mordantly observed, “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.”

Because it is such a powerful emotion, it can be abused by bad people seeking to prey on your empathy:

[A]s critics like Linda Polman have pointed out, the empathetic reflex can lead us astray. When the perpetrators of violence profit from aid—as in the “taxes” that warlords often demand from international relief agencies—they are actually given an incentive to commit further atrocities. It is similar to the practice of some parents in India who mutilate their children at birth in order to make them more effective beggars. The children’s debilities tug at our hearts, but a more dispassionate analysis of the situation is necessary if we are going to do anything meaningful to prevent them.

And it is impossible to empathize with absolutely everyone, because it turns out that even if we loved each other as much as ourselves, we still live in a world of scarce resources and conflicting preferences where trade-offs and compromises must be made, and empathy doesn't really help us there either:

A “politics of empathy” doesn’t provide much clarity in the public sphere, either. Typically, political disputes involve a disagreement over whom we should empathize with. Liberals argue for gun control, for example, by focussing on the victims of gun violence; conservatives point to the unarmed victims of crime, defenseless against the savagery of others. Liberals in favor of tightening federally enforced safety regulations invoke the employee struggling with work-related injuries; their conservative counterparts talk about the small businessman bankrupted by onerous requirements. So don’t suppose that if your ideological opponents could only ramp up their empathy they would think just like you.

One of my favorite paragraphs discusses how empathy wrongly and selfishly focuses people on retributive justice, largely because people want their feelings of outrage satiated by bloodthirsty justice:

On many issues, empathy can pull us in the wrong direction. The outrage that comes from adopting the perspective of a victim can drive an appetite for retribution. (Think of those statutes named for dead children: Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, Caylee’s Law.) But the appetite for retribution is typically indifferent to long-term consequences. In one study, conducted by Jonathan Baron and Ilana Ritov, people were asked how best to punish a company for producing a vaccine that caused the death of a child. Some were told that a higher fine would make the company work harder to manufacture a safer product; others were told that a higher fine would discourage the company from making the vaccine, and since there were no acceptable alternatives on the market the punishment would lead to more deaths. Most people didn’t care; they wanted the company fined heavily, whatever the consequence.

Although Bloom also argues that empathy can often be the pull to act at all that a lot of people need, the truth is:

“The decline of violence may owe something to an expansion of empathy,” the psychologist Steven Pinker has written, “but it also owes much to harder-boiled faculties like prudence, reason, fairness, self-control, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights.” A reasoned, even counter-empathetic analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences is a better guide to planning for the future than the gut wrench of empathy.

20 comments:

  1. Spock- "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Or something like that. I agree unless it is personal. Would I kill many to protect my kids/loved ones? Yep.

    ReplyDelete
  2. There's a difference between BEING GOOD and ACTING GOOD. A wicked
    individual always ACTS good, if it's too his/her advantage. Some of
    the biggest rats of history have acted good to pull off their scams.
    In the nursing home where my late mother resided for a time, there was
    a placard on the wall listing all the "gracious contributers" to the home.
    Among the names were Frank and Nancy Sinatra (Friend of mafiso murderers.)
    and Bernard Madoff.
    Most people will certainly assure you of their good intentions.
    The Salem Witch trials and the Spanish Inquistion were run by crusading
    "do gooders". The N.S.A's evesdropping which is pattently unconstitutional is done for a nobel cause. Is it surprising that this
    is occuring under a president who ran on a "hope and change" agenda?
    People engage in wickedness in the name of "good" because they are
    unable to distinguish wickedness from good. In a few days time, we will
    all be treated to the annual Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy telaphon.
    Those of us old enough can recall the comedian Jerry Lewis' dramatic,
    over emotional pleas for even more money so he could top the previous
    years total. No doubt, crippled children will be wheeled out on stage to
    tug at our emotional heartstrings. Trouble is, that telefon has been
    going on for 50 years and the disease is no closer to a cure now then it
    was 50 years ago.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. :(
      Don't they say "fake it till you make it"? What if it's not just image control/manipulation and I really am trying to be sweet and lovely so that someday that is exactly what I will be?
      Whatever the case, if I do good things, shouldn't that be all that counts? Shouldn't people be judged by the sum of their actions, not the intentions behind them?

      And just because they can't figure out the cure to muscular dystrophy, doesn't mean they should stop trying. Science is advancing at an unprecedented rate. Yes, they are manipulating the public with all those wheelchair bound kids. Yes, people like us don't really give a damn unless it directly affects us. But they need to continue raising money for research and this is the best way of doing it.
      The end justifies the means here.
      This is not the same thing as the government spying on people.

      Delete
    2. It is telethon not telephon.

      Delete
  3. I'm surprised prosperity wasn't mentioned. People behave much better when they have something to lose, generally speaking.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "Without risk, there is no reward. With risk, one must be prepared for the worst."

    I like this, even if it is grossly oversimplified.
    When it's little things that can't hurt you too much, do whatever the hell you want. No use over- complicating and over- thinking life.

    But when it's something that is important and potentially life changing, it makes much more sense to really think things through, bounce ideas off someone you trust. They might shed new light on the matter. The ones who truly care will tell you the truth, even if it means they tell you what you don't want to hear or hurt your feelings.
    Put your ego aside.
    In the end, it's our arrogance, our narcissism that leads to all that scorched earth around us.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I had forgotten about the dynamic with beggars, either made by no fault of the victim themselves, their parents, or others in society as it related to India.

    I was reading a book on borderline personality disorder recently and they made the interesting observation that a part of the reason self-mutilation is so prevalent with those possessing BPD is due to the fact that it is a dramatic gesture to invoke an empathic response in others. The desire in that case is to avoid abandonment from those close to them. I wonder if this dynamic (empathy as a weapon) gets at Cleckley's observation of suicidal threats rarely carried out in the sociopath. Maybe once I get my hands on The Mask of Sanity, I will know the answer to that question.

    In the hands of the adept, empathy is a potential tool, and a powerful one at that, for manipulative purposes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 7arcissists do similar thijgs.m my friend wanted attention and sym8pathy so kept repeat7ng suicide thoughts and really appreciated attention she got. It lifted her up to know ppl cared enough to call authorities.

      Delete
    2. psychogendered, I don't like suicide threats like any type of threats in personal relations, makes me icy un-emphatic in fact.

      The Mask of Sanity. Use Calibre (software) to convert it to your favorite device. ... or read it as pdf.file.

      Delete
  6. May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion, The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
    http://CultureOfEmpathy.com

    ReplyDelete
  7. Empathy, kindness, courage, emotional disassociation, are all not supposed to be taken as wonderpills to cure all ills. The same logical assessment would apply for the widely marketed health foods, yoga, religious ritual, creative thinking, college degree, which tend to have unchecked claims of miracle solutions for a wide range of problems, including those that do not have clear relation. These probably may influence positively to the ideal life of success and fufillment but more likely overinflated to seem like the single most important factor.

    This obsession for oversimplication of solutions might be tracable back into history. From the witchhunts to ancient myths, ethnic cleansing, attributing supersition to sickness, individual superiority to atheletic success are just some you can think of. As individuals we also exhibit this kind of behaviour, the full range of which gets played out in our heads.

    The common argument seems to which is a better attribute to wear all the time? Empathy or none at all. But that's seldom how we operate right? We have complex thinking centers in the brain, as scientists postulate, so it would mea we are capable of quick and flexible thinking and not stuck in a "single attire for all occasions" situation, which may be a fallback on the primitive instincts of the brain. How about looking at empathy in terms of applying to all equally? At others and the self, whether we are victims, offenders, jury, judge, bystanders. Would true impartiality be achievable then? Or a total stasis to decision making?

    ReplyDelete
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  9. I'd read this article in the NYer, and had problems with it. The author Bloom states:
    "Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate."
    No, those are not features of empathy. Those are just different features of people in general. He circumscribes empathy with features that have nothing to do it, and this becomes the basis for his whole article.
    But actually, I can be empathetic, and not parochial. Or I can be non-empathetic, and parochial. I would think the feature of narrow-mindedness in particular actually *precludes* a state of empathy, while being innumerate, well, we're all illogical about some things that have no relation to feeling (or not feeling) empathetic. And that's the thing - empathy is just a *feeling.* It *may or may not* cause people to act.
    As Soe am i seemed to suggest above, might part of the key be to learn how to *expand* empathy (not to delimit it with Bloom's definition)? I think that by expanding the definition of empathy, we see that those who are most empathetic are those who can acknowledge commonalities with *anyone,* including their enemies. But again, empathy is just a sense, a feeling. If empathy has any effects, they can be enhanced, improved, basically do more good, by eliminating precisely those features the author associates with it: narrow-mindedness, parochialism, being innumerate. Now how that's possible is another story.

    ReplyDelete
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