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.