Empathy Is Not Good

Not an unalloyed good, to be sure. The classic example is that my empathy for a young woman who has been sexually assaulted -- which is quite legitimate -- can cause me to pursue harsh punishments against the person who is accused of assaulting her, without caring too much about the certainty of proof against him. There are numerous other examples along these lines, which the reader is invited to research at pleasure.

Nevertheless, until now I've not seen an argument that suggested that empathy wasn't at least a little bit good, or potentially good if properly used. Here is one that does that, reducing empathy to a kind of bias.

Unfortunately, it's in a podcast form, so I can't readily give you excerpts. But consider it, if it's a subject that interests you.


Anonymous said...

This is why our system of justice involves a trier of fact (judge or jury) and two, adversarial sides, for both criminal and civil cases. It's hard to be fair to two opposing sides at once, and also represent one or the other. So, having two advocates before a relatively unbiased party is a solution to the problem of maintaining balance at all times.


David Foster said...

"And so empathy is exquisitely subject to bias because our bias tells us where the spotlight is pointed to. I could try to do a rational cost benefit analysis and I can do a pretty good shot at being unbiased and fair adding up the people who suffer from the people who benefit figuring out a solution. But once empathy comes into the mix bias is inevitable."

That is silly. If one had no empathy at all, then why would he want to go to the trouble of doing "a rational cost benefit analysis" to identify the optimum mix of those who benefit vs those who suffer?

OTOH, it is true that empathy is not an unalloyed good. In Erich Maria Remarque's great but neglected novel The Road Back, the narrator (Ernst) reflects on his feelings at the end of the Great War, observing that his own happiness at going home is not destroyed by the misery of those wounded so badly that they will not make it, and asks himself:

"Because none can ever wholly feel what another suffers--is that the reason why wars perpetually recur?"

It seemed to me when I first read the passage that Ernst's hypothesis was an incomplete explanation, and I still think that. The causes of wars *include* empathy, specifically, for members of one's own nation and/or other people on whose behalf the war is (at least purportedly) being fought. I believe there are studies implicating oxytocin, the 'cuddle hormone', in in-group preferences and willingness to use violence on behalf of the in-group.

But that's not a valid argument for empathy as a Bad Thing, anymore than the use of railroads to transport prisoners to concentration camps proves that railroads are a Bad Thing.

E Hines said...

Bloom demonstrated throughout his podcast that he has no understanding of what empathy is. Empathy is nothing more than an ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual. Bias doesn't enter into it. Collecting data and thinking about them do. It's embarrassing to me that a psychologist would have such a fundamental lack of understanding.

An illustration from the text summary at the link: The analogy brings together two opposed camps: those who feel empathy is essential to making good ethical choices, and those who, like Bloom, feel that empathy is just another word for bias.

Notice that: feel, not think. But he is Yale trained rather than competently so.

Sun Tzu was a great fan of empathy, even though he didn't couch it in those terms.

Eric Hines

Ymar Sakar said...

That is silly. If one had no empathy at all, then why would he want to go to the trouble of doing "a rational cost benefit analysis" to identify the optimum mix of those who benefit vs those who suffer?

Sociopaths have to do that, especially the ones who like living within society's rules.