Friday, September 30, 2011

Empathy is Overrated (And So are Literature Classes?)

Some say that one of the most important reasons to have literature classes is that reading develops empathy. In today's column in the New York Times, David Brooks suggests the value of this lesson may be overrated.

The Limits of Empathy
By David Brooks

We are surrounded by people trying to make the world a better place. Peace activists bring enemies together so they can get to know one another and feel each other’s pain. School leaders try to attract a diverse set of students so each can understand what it’s like to walk in the others’ shoes. Religious and community groups try to cultivate empathy.

As Steven Pinker writes in his mind-altering new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, we are living in the middle of an “empathy craze.” There are shelfloads of books about it: The Age of Empathy, The Empathy Gap, The Empathic Civilization, Teaching Empathy. There’s even a brain theory that we have mirror neurons in our heads that enable us to feel what’s in other people’s heads and that these neurons lead to sympathetic care and moral action.

There’s a lot of truth to all this. We do have mirror neurons in our heads. People who are empathetic are more sensitive to the perspectives and sufferings of others. They are more likely to make compassionate moral judgments.

The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. 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.

Click here to read the rest of this brief article.


  1. I agree with Brooks. However, I also feel that emotions have more value when it comes to judgment and moral actions than many philosophers have tended to assert. At the same time, feeling can predispose us to bias and we need to be alert to this potential. As Kant asserts in Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, "there are many persons so sympathetically constituted that, without any further motive [they] spread joy around them and can rejoice in the satisfaction of others. But...action of this kind, however dutiful and amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth…actions that arise from other inclinations…deserv[e] praise and encouragement, but not esteem.[Only actions performed] solely from duty [have] genuine moral worth"(11). Kant's concern, among others, with emotions is that they "fluctuat[e]"(12) and therefore do not guarantee, or serve as consistent and equitable motives for, moral action. Moreover, their ability to serve as forceful motives for action is often confounded by competing inclinations, like the desire for personal gain and the impulse to avoid injury (physical, psychological, economic, or social). The latter often override the former. This, not matter how laudable the former emotions may be, they remain ineffectual in the face of stronger motives. In Kant's estimation, reason alone provides an alternative motive that commands universally, and can (but doesn't always) trump imperatives born of inclination. In that respect, it can help one sort out which emotions are motivating one in a moral way from those that are not. However, it should be noted that figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Martha Nussbaum, among others, have indicated that there are occasions where reason alone is not sufficient for moral judgment or action. Sartre gives the example of the soldier who is faced with competing moral demands, both of which are "rational." Here, emotion can help tip the scale and thereby make action possible. And while Kant doesn't think that moral worth is measured by action, Sartre and Brooks certainly do. Nussbaum asserts in Love's Knowledge that "without feeling, a part of correct [moral] perception is missing"(79). Furthermore, she states, "reasoning unaccompanied by emotion is not sufficient for practical wisdom [an Aristotelian prerequisite for moral action]"(41) because emotion grants both perceptual access of, and sensitivity to, certain aspects of existential situations, aspects that must be considered in order to achieve the objective of full moral appraisal. It is because literature fosters both elicits emotional response and fosters awareness of particulars that she recommends the study of literature. In my view, moral awareness requires the coordination of reason and emotion. They work in concert and can also check and balance one another. Moreover, subsequent to the moral evaluation of a situation (which in theory yields a realization of what one should do), these equally necessary aspects of moral judgment can provide sufficient force to compel action. And I agree with Sartre that action is what counts.

  2. Individuals interested in the subject of empathy, particularly the limits of it, might find Thomas Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" of interest. Though not focused on the topic of empathy, Nagel's article nonetheless sheds light on the limits of it. Through the extreme example of a bat, Nagel illustrates the "problem of other minds," namely the fact that other people's subjective experiences are inaccessible to us (from a first person perspective). To the extent that empathy presumes the ability to feel as the other, not simply for the other (as is the case with sympathy), the inaccesibility of other minds would appear to preclude the possibility of true empathy. As Nagel points out, when we imagine what it is like to be a bat,"our own experience provides the basic material." As such, we are not really imagining what it would be like to be a bat, but rather what "it would be like [for us]... to behave as a bat." At best, mental "extrapolation" can approximate what someone else might experience; however, Nagel states, "even possible only for someone sufficiently similar." Thus, the greater difference between people, the more difficult it is to perceive their point of view and the more likely it is we will simply project our perception onto their experience (effectively suppressing their voice through a sort of mental colonialism). Perhaps this highlights the importance of intellect--as Brooks points out. Emotion is not unimportant, but it is not the silver bullet when it comes to moral understanding. Emotion uninformed by reason is not a reliable guide. In the case of empathy, we need to be aware of the "cognitive [and emotive] dissonance" that exists due to the problem of other minds. Therefore, while seeking empathy, we need to simulataneously remember that the closest approximation of it is achieved through attentive understanding of the other, an outcome impossible without the aid of the intellect.

  3. I agree with you that both emotion and intellect have a valuable role to play when it comes to making ethical decisions. Your analysis of this complex issue strikes me as both knowledgeable and wise.

    What follows is not intended as disagreement, but as a complementary caution about the danger of celebrating empathy uncritically.

    In a chapter titled “The Rise of English,” in Literary Theory: An Introduction, Terry Eagleton argues that “empathy” can sometimes serve nefarious ends. The emergence of the study of English-language literature in 19th century schools in England and America, Eagleton writes, corresponded with an effort to tamp down revolutionary sentiments in the working classes. Presumably, working class readers who learn to empathize with the aristocratic and middle class protagonists of national literary masterpieces will be less likely to revolt against them.

    Eagleton’s argument suggests that empathy can debilitate as well as empower. This notion complicates the idea, forwarded by Simon Baron-Cohen (see Ron Rosenbaum’s article—posted on this blog on October 22), that evil is the absence of empathy. When revolution is needed (whether you think this is true of 19th century England or not), it might be evil to let a misplaced empathy stop you from acting.

    I tend to side with Burt Bacharach on the question of what the world needs now ("love, sweet love"). But I know that’s only half of the equation. The world also needs knowledge. Creating and spreading knowledge is the most important work that schools do. I have my doubts about the place of empathy in the curriculum of a public school (thought its place in my personal life is sacrosanct).