Vicarious suffering is an end in itself

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

In The Age of Empathy Frans de Waal explains that we are “pre-programmed to reach out,” but this empathy may not be such a good thing:

In 2012, a collection of papers entitled Pathological Altruism signalled the start of a new trend of skepticism towards empathy and compassion. Behind it lay the claim, as radical as it was blindingly obvious, that precisely because empathy is an evolved mechanism, it might have unintended consequences in the modern world.

Since then, psychologists and sociologists have been exploring the dark side of altruistic behavior, especially with regards to political and cultural tribalism. Jordan Peterson and Christine Brophy have discovered that so-called ‘Social Justice Warriors’ tend to be high in empathy towards the vulnerable, but draconian towards those perceived to be a threat. Similarly, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning have pointed out that partisanship flourishes in a “victimhood culture,” because people respond to appeals from those they identify with socially.

These seem like lessons for the left especially, but as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign showed, the right has its own sinister uses for empathy. Nationalists have long used the propaganda of victimization to foster in-group mindsets, and to motivate, in Jonathan Sacks’s phrase, “altruistic evil” towards outsiders and scapegoats.

Be all this as it may, the notion that what the world really needs is less empathy still strikes most people as absurd. Are these not cases of too little, rather than too much empathy? Is the cardinal definition of empathy not to “place yourself in somebody else’s shoes”? How would our close relationships function without it? And above all, without the capacity to be moved by another’s suffering, how is good supposed to come into the world?

These questions point, more than anything, to an almighty confusion about how phenomena like empathy, compassion, and altruism work and relate to one another. For this reason alone, we should welcome the most direct assault on empathy to date, Paul Bloom’s much-discussed recent book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Let’s take that adage about “placing yourself in someone else’s shoes.” As Bloom points out, it confuses two things that don’t necessarily go together. One is cognitive empathy, or “social intelligence,” which means the basic ability to grasp someone else’s point of view. This is rightly valued. Bloom’s adversary, however, is what he sees as empathy proper: feeling another’s pain as though it were your own.

This kind of emotional or “affective” empathy is not voluntary, of course, but according to Bloom, nor is it a good basis on which to act in public life. This claim is based on two main observations. First, to embrace empathy is often to abandon perspective and rational judgment, meaning that “our interests fail to coincide with any reasonable assessment of where help is needed most.” And second, echoing some of the research I cited earlier, empathy is actually quite picky about which shoes it enters. It conforms to our existing prejudices, and leads people to seek harsher punishments for perceived enemies, finding some of its purest expressions in “us versus them” situations.

That empathy can be divisive should scarcely be surprising. How often do partisans seek “single identifiable victims” — whether mistreated welfare claimants or destitute veterans — to frame a particular agenda in emotional terms? Once a debate has become suffused with empathy, all appeals to the bigger picture are easily dismissed as callous. And worse, the consequences can reverberate far beyond the debate itself.

Wessie du Toit goes a step further:

Deep-rooted problems like culture wars and a failure to think practically imply that vicarious suffering, more than ever, is welcomed not as a motivation for good actions, but as an end in itself. In other words, empathy is jealously defended because of its value to the empathizer. This, in turn, might point to an atomized, morally perplexed society, much of whose emotional sustenance comes from an ephemeral stream of online media. The feeling of helplessness that arises from passively consuming distant events is now central to the relationship of the individual to the world. In this situation, expressions of empathy and disgust, with their attendant comforts of tribal solidarity, are often all that stand between you and moral estrangement from reality.

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