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Thursday, November 4, 2010

The trickiness of characterizing empathy in politics, part 1

So as mentioned, I'm working my way through Frans de Waal's book The Age of Empathy.  On my drive I also listened to the audiobook of Michael Shermer's The Mind of the Market, and it was almost comical to expose myself to both at the same time and read/listen to how both drew on the same research to reach radically different conclusions about how empathy works in American economics.  de Waal maintains that Americans practice little empathy toward their fellow man (which, in his eyes, would entail mandating the government to take better care of people) and believe that the free market will take care of everyone.  Shermer, by contrast, maintains that Americans trust the market barely at all and expect the government to make things fair for everyone.  Shermer is an American with a doctorate in the history of science, whereas de Waal is a primatologist and Dutch by birth though he has lived in the United States for almost thirty years. 

I couldn't tell you whether or how much life in America has affected de Waal's politics, but his book does contain the following passage:
Europeans are far more divided by rank and class and tend to prefer security over opportunity.  Success is viewed with suspicion.  It's not for nothing that the French language offers only negative labels for people who have made it for themselves, such as nouveau riche and parvenu.  The result, in some nations, has been economic gridlock.  When I see twenty-year-olds march in the streets of Paris to claim job protection or older people to preserve retirement at fifty-five, I feel myself all of a sudden siding with American conservatives, who detest entitlement.  The state is not a teat from which one can squeeze milk any time of the day, yet that's how many Europeans seem to look at it. 
And so my political philosophy sits somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic-- not too comfortable a place.  I appreciate the economic and creative vitality on this side but remain perplexed by the widespread hatred of taxes and government.  
 So to be fair to de Waal-- he clearly has a mental boundary at which government taking care of people ceases to count as compassion and becomes pampering, and draws that line far in advance of where he sees other Europeans-- mainly the French-- drawing it.  But I would pay good money to put him and Shermer in a room together and see how they manage to resolve what constitutes "hatred of taxes and government." I'm guessing Shermer would be incredulous at that characterization of Americans, as am I.  I don't think that description even fits Tea Partiers (although putting one of them in a room with a French student might cause the heads of both to explode).  de Waal describes Americans after Katrina as expecting the market to take care of disaster relief, but also becoming angry about FEMA's ineptness at tackling the problem quickly and efficiently.  Which is a head-scratcher for me-- if they trusted the market to take care of it, why was their anger directed toward FEMA?  Wouldn't that rather be a sign that they thought the government should handle the issue and felt cheated when it didn't? 

Shermer, for his part, characterizes the American view of economics as analogous to how many of its population view evolution-- with a conviction that there must be a top-down designer. Opponents of evolutionary theory claim that the environment could not exist with the species in it today without a designer, whereas Americans in Shermer's view believe that the market could not function without economic disaster without its own designer: the government.  Shermer says this is false, but at the same time is not willing to advocate for no regulation, just much less.  He compares the free market to natural selection-- not a process, but an emergent property.  A term for what happens when some species and products or serves are selected for or against in their given environment.  With evolution the environment is primarily physical, consisting of weather, geographic location, predator and prey relationships, and so on.  In economics, the environment is the market, consisting of incentives and psychology.  Shermer doesn't just use evolution as an analogy, but actually discusses dispositions people have about economics as having been adaptive in our evolutionary past.  He and de Waal would have much to discuss in this regard as well. 

What does this have to do with empathy, now?  The answer is that as scholars who are fully aware that Adam Smith wrote his Theory of Moral Sentiments before his more popular book The Wealth of Nations, both Shermer and de Waal are convinced that empathy, or lack thereof, is at the root of economic beliefs and practices.  What's revealing is that even with this as a given, they still reach near-opposite conclusions about how empathetic Americans would behave in an economic context.

Let's check quickly on what the term "empathy" is supposed to mean.  In the common understanding of scientists who study it, there are two primary forms.  The first is affective, or emotional.  This can also be called "sympathy," because it involves physically imitating the object of your empathic response, and often isn't voluntary.  Emotional contagion, the act of yawning when someone else is yawning, or imitating the body posture of someone you're talking to, are forms of affective empathy.  The second form is theoretical, reflective, usually deliberate.  It's also called "perspective-taking," because it involves consciously stepping into someone else's shoes and trying to see the world through their eyes, to mix the most common metaphors.  These two don't always go together, as exemplified by a sadist who can understand someone's state of mind and uses that information to figure out how best to torture them.  Using one's understanding of someone against them has been called the "dark side of empathy." 

Now from what I can tell, trying to apply understanding of how empathetic someone is to what their political/economic philosophy will be is rather like trying to envision what Jesus's political/economic philosophy would be today-- everybody seems to have an opinion which is easy to reach, but is also inevitably diametrically opposed to someone else's.  That's because compassionate people, people who are not only strongly prone to affective empathy but are also compelled by it to help others, can have markedly different views on economics and politics.  How can this be?  Well, because there's a difference between being nice to others and having the government do it for you.  I highly doubt that de Waal, for example, would want to claim that the French are kinder than he is.  Shermer's primary argument for free market economics rests on the data he compiles to show that empathy and altruism are evolutionarily adaptive and that people feel and practice them without requiring any outside compulsion-- that is, that America doesn't need a big government because humans are empathetic.  I'm not entirely sure yet where de Waal is going to end up with his use of research on altruistic tendencies in non-human primates, but would make a good bet that it won't be in Shermer's land of the free market since that certainly isn't where he started.   The main thing I am wondering at this point, actually, is whether it's even possible for people who study human nature to divorce their own political views from it when it comes to discussing empathy in that context. 

This post is "part 1" because I discovered that one of my favorite psychologists Jonathan Haidt has been doing work on Libertarian morality using empathy as a primary factor, and libertarian magazine Reason has its own interpretation of it.  I want to discuss both of those, but need to do some more reading and thinking about it first.

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