Empathy and its Discontents

"Empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation," which raises some concerns about its value.  Americans are really good, these days, at feeling bad for you.  Does that mean they will help you?
As Steven Pinker writes in his mind-altering new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” we are living in the middle of an “empathy craze.” There are shelfloads of books about it: “The Age of Empathy,” “The Empathy Gap,” “The Empathic Civilization,” “Teaching Empathy.” There’s even a brain theory that we have mirror neurons in our heads that enable us to feel what’s in other people’s heads and that these neurons lead to sympathetic care and moral action.
You can read a much more in-depth account of Dr. Pinker's new work here.  What strikes me most about his assertions is how carefully he has pruned some of the graphs.

The first graph is pruned by showing a mean but not a mode; the 20th century graph is pretty much on the line with what the mode would be.  If you take "Europe and the US in the 20th century," and plot it against an average that is distorted by just a few of the graphs to the left, it looks like there has been substantial change.  If you take "the 20th century" as a whole, and plot it not against the average but the mode, it looks like there is no significant change.  The "100 Worst Wars and Atrocities" chart offers a hint as to why:  there is a strong clustering of the "worst"-ever things as you approach our present time.

Likewise, the "Deadliness of War" graph is strangely constructed by having a flat number of people killed.  The population has increased so much over the time frame, though, that the change makes a hash of the assertion.  There is a huge difference in a nation losing 10,000 people when it has a population of 30,000 versus 300,000 versus 300,000,000.  Note also that the scale on the graph is logarithmic, which makes the spike in the 20th century seem like a far smaller change than it really is:  if you drew this same thing on an normal scale, the Thirty Years War would look like a blip beside WWII.

As always, I doubt these claims of "progress" in human nature.  Cultures change over time, yes; but assuming you have an ordinary prejudice toward your own values, any period in history will be able to draw a chart showing "progress" of this type.  After all, humans learn culture from interaction with each other; and we have more interaction with those humans who are closer to us than those further away.  This is true in both space and time.  Therefore, of course it looks like periods of time further away from us are less like us than closer periods; and of course you can draw graphs that appear to show lines on scales going in a consistent direction.

That doesn't imply "progress," though.  Any age will be able to draw a graph just like this, showing movement from values alien to their own, to values closer to their own, to their own values.  That will certainly look like progress to them, but that doesn't make it progress in any real sense.

4 comments:

Ymar Sakar said...

I mostly think empathy is more useful for assassination. All the other social stuff can be handled by normal channels. The ability to feel what someone else feels, allows disguises to be accurate, cons to be more successful, and assassination attempts less likely of blowing up the wrong person.

Ymar Sakar said...

Pinkerton is accurate on the beginning of human nature and violence, but he veers off course when it comes to making conclusions about the modern status quo world.

rcl said...

Brooks makes a great point about the true motivation to action.

People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.

Mother Teresa or Robbie Miller, their motivation was duty and love which reason forged into will.

Brooks is wrong IMHO about "mirror neurons". Nonsense. There's no scientific evidence these exist. Regardless how gullible the media and public may be the coincidental observations involved are not sufficient to establish cause.

Thanks Grim for that link to Pinker's lecture. Regardless he looks like my grandma Dee Dee I found his work fascinating. He reasons solely from his data. What a pleasure to read.

rcl said...

BTW, I get your comments about the graphs but Pinker himself points out some of the problems.

...you can make the numbers go all over the place depending on the choice of the denominator.

On that 100 Worst graph he notes the cluster of events nearer our time is logical since we have better information of recent times. Still the scale weighted for % of world population does counter the perception that the 20th Century was some kind of nadir in human history.

The graphs aren't his. He's assembled available data and ordered it according to his interpretation. It's a long article. I'll have to come back to it once or twice to decide if he's on to something or not.