Saturday, October 8, 2011

Above and beyond empathy

In a recent NY Times column entitled "The Limits of Empathy," David Brooks writes about how gut-level empathy falls short of guaranteeing moral behavior, and, worse, can even lead us astray:

Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.
...
Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.
Brooks cites a recent paper by philosopher Jesse Prinz (a graduate school classmate of mine) on studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action:
“These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.”
Prinz also observes, in Brooks' words, that:
[Empathy] influences people to care more about cute victims than ugly victims. It leads to nepotism. It subverts justice; juries give lighter sentences to defendants that show sadness. It leads us to react to shocking incidents, like a hurricane, but not longstanding conditions, like global hunger or preventable diseases.
...or my personal obsession: preventable educational catastrophes. On that note, substitute "empathy" with "appreciation," "moral" with "academic," and  "moral judgment" with "rigorous analysis," and some of Brooks' observations sound a lot like Reform Math and its various cousins:
These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. 
Indeed, speaking of schools:
In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.
Just as math and science appreciation must be channeled into structure, analysis, and hard work, so, too with empathy:
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.
Reforming society entails a similarly left-brained approach:
If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes. Accept that codes conflict.
Accept that codes conflict. This is key, especially when Brooks uses words like "sacred." And maybe I'm biased, but I suspect that left-brainers are a lot better at this than right-brainers are.

7 comments:

Nancy Bea Miller said...

Very interesting! What is the title of Prinz's original paper, and where is it published?

Liz Knapp said...

I am not sure I am getting his point. So empathy might not lead us to action, but what exactly would lead someone without empathy to action? Their "sacred code" / "sense of duty"? - those two things sound kind of like morality to me. How are those feelings developed differently than empathy? I am not for "teaching" empathy in schools but I am just not sure what he is advocating. Also, I have to say that most of the people in my life who I consider left brained have a very difficult time accepting that others have different codes from them.

Lori Rogers said...

Empathy falls short because it doesn't necessarily mean ethics. Students can model empathy. But if you aren't empathetic, you lose ability to make ethical decisions. Quite a conundrum.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Empathy also falls short as a framework for moral action because then your obligations are based on feelings. Feelings can be false-they reflect subjective, or objective reality.

Empathy teaches us we should do things because they FEEL right, whereas objective morality teaches that people should do things that they ARE right.

We were actually talking about this the other day WRT the book "The Psychopath Test." Someone with Psychopathic tendencies who was raised with a strong moral creed would be unlikely to turn serial killer, for example. Because even if killing was FUN for them, they'd also have a sense of it being WRONG.

Modern conscience, based in feelings of guilt, it actually very different from Jewish and Catholic notions, based in a set of laws-- the idea of an examination of conscience is "here is a list of Shalls and Shall Nots. Have I broken any of them?" So someone who didn't feel bad about an action could still recognize that it was wrong and repent, and if someone else pointed out a wrong, the wrongdoer would have to admit it.

BUT admitting that codes of ethics and morality differ widely between modern America (aside from a baseline of the "natural law" sort--i.e. Do good, avoid evil" with arguments about what is good and evil other than fratricide and Patricide (Which most cultures seem to agree on) ) WOULD effect education, because we'd have to admit that schools couldn't teach "Character"-- that that was the parents' job.

So, anyway, Empathy and Morality are too completely different things--you may KNOW that taking your sister's toy makes her feel bad, but maybe that empathy is WHY you do it-- because you LIKE it when she's miserable and she was making you mad anyway!

Meanwhile, moral law says "You don't steal," so taking the toy is wrong, period. I do wonder how long moral law can last in a world where most people don;t believe in some sort of divine being, though.....

Because if the next step in the equation is "But no one will see me do it, so there are no consequences for "Wrong,".......

(BTW-- It would be interesting to study how Asperger's and Autistic kids navigate religions with a clear set of clearly laid out rules as opposed to those with vaguer ideas of what is "Good" and "True." Would an Aspie kid be happier as an Orthodox Jew than as a Unitarian, for instance?)

kcab said...

Would an Aspie kid be happier as an Orthodox Jew than as a Unitarian, for instance?
I don't know the answer to this question, of course, but a number of the UU's I know are analytical thinkers. I'm just drawing on my limited experience as a UU though, and congregations vary.

Cranberry said...

There's more evidence that emotions are necessary for decision making, than for the supposed "codes."

I'd argue that many, many more people are aware of "some religious, military, social or philosophic code," but choose not to obey those codes, than those who are empathetic, but don't choose to match action to empathy.

You probably need both. The last three paragraphs of Brooks' essay seem to be the products of his imagination.

Anonymous said...

"I do wonder how long moral law can last in a world where most people don;t believe in some sort of divine being, though....."

Atheists make up only about a 5th of one percent of the US prison population while making up 5-10% of the total US population. Atheistic countries in Northern Europe have very low crime rates compared to the very religious United States.

Atheists are committing far less crime than people who believe in a divine being. This would indicate that there is no connection between the idea of a divine being watching and moral behavior.

A sense of right and wrong has to be internal. Often, the idea of punishment, whether it's some kind of divine punishment or whether it's the possibility of prison doesn't seem to be a hugely effective deterrent. People who do wrong usually assume that they won't get caught (otherwise they likely would not commit a crime to begin with).

I don't think empathy alone is enough to create moral behavior. It is easy to say that stealing a toy from a friend is wrong because they will be sad. But can you say that stealing from a department store will make someone sad? So, you need to have a code of ethics that relates to overall societal stability. No divine being is needed because most people want a sense of security and stability in their lives.