Saturday, October 1, 2011

Is empathy enough?

David Brooks has an interesting essay in the New York Times called The Limits of Empathy. In it he discusses the wealth of research published lately on how empathy works as a psychological response, and makes a case that it can't and shouldn't be considered the true foundation for morality. This is because the reaction of empathy doesn't always kick in when it ideally should, to the extent that it should:
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. 
There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “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.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern.
And when it does, it is shockingly biased:
Moreover, Prinz argues, empathy often leads people astray. It 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.
All of this is true. Our sense of affective empathy (empathy as an emotional reaction) is most easily provoked when confronted with suffering of people who are like us and familiar to us.  That group includes family most immediately, but can extend toward members of virtually any group who are better known and more like us than those who are not.  Neighbors over non-neighbors. People who go to the same church over those who don't, or don't go to church at all. People of the same color vs. another race, people from the same town/state/country before foreigners. Bros before hos*. Preferential empathy isn't antipathy, it's important to note...but it can turn into it, given that allegiances with some people tend to create enemies out of the others.

Still, I find that a kind of odd criticism of empathy-- that it isn't all-encompassing, therefore it can't be a good moral foundation. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, best known for his work on autism, has written that having a deficient theory of mind (the term for our capacity to recognize and understand the thoughts and goals of others) makes it harder for people with autism to experience affective empathy.  But that certainly doesn't make them into psychopaths.  Instead, it can lead to the creation of a more explicit, removed form of empathy-- one based on broad notions of justice rather than being moved by the suffering of someone specific. I find it entirely fitting to use "empathy" as a term for this because the belief that it's wrong to punish or reward people unequally for the same acts (for example) requires a sense of fairness, and a sense of fairness comes out of an ability to put oneself in the place of someone who is treated unfairly.  This is called the simulation theory of empathy-- understanding what a person is thinking and feeling by approximating their situation as best as you can, drawing on your own experiences.  When your theory of mind is just that-- a theory-- this is how empathy works for you. Cognitively, rather than as an intuitive response.  This way of thinking might have the advantage of provoking people toward a consistent theory of justice, one which isn't as subject to the biases discussed above.

Brooks concludes:
Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them.
This is absolutely true. But from what I can tell, that is empathy, if it starts with a consideration for how others must feel and think. We all build our own codes-- from scratch possibly, but for the vast majority of us something more like an amalgamation of those developed from people who came before us, cobbled together and modified as we've seen fit. If that codification is centered around being fair and not causing suffering, then it seems right to call it empathy-based.

*If ever an expression merited an immediate karmic punishment from the universe....

1 comment:

  1. I agree on the general points, but I have questions about what empathy really is. I haven't done much reading on it, but I've understood the simulation theory of empathy to describe the automatic activation of unconscious simulation processes, rather than simulation that relies upon intentionally putting oneself in the shoes of another. I think of the latter as a more conscious and deliberative process that I would call sympathy. For example, I'd call it sympathy if I read about a person's woes in a newspaper article, put myself in their shoes and feel sadness for them. On the other hand, I can see someone cry and feel a pang of sadness quite automatically without knowing anything about that person's situation. The crying would automatically and unconsciously activate non-conscious simulating activity in my brain, in turn activating the limbic substrates of conscious affective experience, all of this occurring in an automatic feedback loop. This is what I think of as empathy.

    There might be a disagreement about nomenclature and perhaps I've got the simulation of theory of empathy wrong, but I think there are two related but differently mediated processes behind what I'm calling sympathy vs empathy.

    Another way to look at it: I'd place empathy under the broad heading of direct brain-to-brain communication--two neurological systems linked by sensory inputs and perceptual processes. Empathy as I'm describing it would ahve more to do with direct emotional attunement activity than factual knowledge and putting ourselves in the shoes of another person.

    Of course, in addition to reacting empathically to a person, we could put ourselves in the shoes of another person adding an overlay of sympathy. It seems to me that sympathy and empathy can be complementary activities, but different neurological processes are involved.

    Perhaps what Pinker describes in the autistic person is more akin to what I'm calling sympathy. I've definitely seen sympathy accompanied by emotion in people on the autistic spectrum. But these same people do not react empathically (under my definition) to others because automatic simulation processes are either not occurring or the feedback loop with the limbic system is somehow disrupted.

    These are distinctions that clinicians who would identify with intersubjectivism like to think about. It's been out some 25 years, but have you read Daniel Stern's Interpersonal World of the Infant? Stern's observational research gets deeply into this area, looking at mother and infant interactions and the mutual shaping of minds and formation of self even before there is conceptual cognitive mediation. Instead, facial expressions, tone of voice, volume, rhythm of speech and sounds, exert automatic influences that alter affective states. Neuropsychologist Allan Schore (UCLA psychiatry) has also written a great deal about automatic brain to brain-to-brain influence on affective processes and experience.

    The difference in these processes actually matters clinically, with sympathy being rather limited as a diagnostic tool. Empathy on the other hand, can provide more immediate kinds of data that may not be accessible by intellectual analysis and putting oneself in the client's shoes. Sympathy can actually interfere with therapeutic progress, while empathy is essential to it.


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