Author Topic: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion  (Read 552 times)

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Offline brilligtove

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Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« on: February 21, 2017, 11:48:43 AM »
Emapthy and sympathy are subjects that have come up with my psychiatrist.  A few weeks ago he mentioned that I might find this book interesting. He was right. In the end, I think Bloom's larger point is that rational compassion is more effective than compassion, and that  compassion is more effective than empathy. The subtitle is really the focus, though he spends a lot of time on the shortcomings of empathy as we normally think of it.

I don't agree with all of Bloom's arguments and there were times I found the writing style to be a bit plodding. Overall I think this is a good read and worth discussing.

What do you think?
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Offline Nosmas

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #1 on: February 21, 2017, 11:55:29 AM »
I've never read his books but I have heard him speak on the topic in a couple of podcasts. Although it's been a while now I did find myself agreeing with a lot of what he was saying. I found his criticisms of empathy interesting as people generally equate empathy with something that's always used for good.
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Online Johnny Slick

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #2 on: February 23, 2017, 05:58:19 PM »
For those of us who are too lazy to read the book, can you summarize the difference between empathy and "rational compassion"? I think I have a  idea but I could be, like, way off
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Offline Andrew Clunn

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #3 on: February 23, 2017, 11:06:33 PM »
empathy: I'm helping people I can relate to and feel bad for because I like how it makes me feel.

rational compassion: I'm a robot who has calculated that giving this $10 to an AIDs prevention program will help more people than if I buy you lunch Mr homeless man.  Guess you don't eat today.
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Offline Desert Fox

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #4 on: February 24, 2017, 02:22:21 AM »
empathy: I'm helping people I can relate to and feel bad for because I like how it makes me feel.

rational compassion: I'm a robot who has calculated that giving this $10 to an AIDs prevention program will help more people than if I buy you lunch Mr homeless man.  Guess you don't eat today.

At least in both cases you are trying to do good instead of saying "Fuck You" and pocketing the money.
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Offline Andrew Clunn

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #5 on: February 24, 2017, 07:27:58 AM »
There was no value judgement made in that post.  I actually honestly just expressed what JS was asking.  Pick a fight later, after I've shit all over empathy and compassion in general.
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Offline Desert Fox

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #6 on: February 24, 2017, 07:42:54 AM »
There was no value judgement made in that post.  I actually honestly just expressed what JS was asking.  Pick a fight later, after I've shit all over empathy and compassion in general.

My argument is that they both have value. . . . Do what you feel is right and a balance between the two is likely a good way of of looking at them.
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Offline Soldier of FORTRAN

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #7 on: February 24, 2017, 03:15:56 PM »
Pick a fight later, after I've shit all over empathy and compassion in general.

Hey now, empathy is useful information even if you don't care about people
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Offline Andrew Clunn

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #8 on: February 24, 2017, 04:16:37 PM »
Pick a fight later, after I've shit all over empathy and compassion in general.

Hey now, empathy is useful information even if you don't care about people

True.  The heartless Lady McBeth style character will out compete the pure sociopath.
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Online Drunken Idaho

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #9 on: February 25, 2017, 11:15:36 PM »
I'm also interested in the differences as you see them, brilligtove.
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Offline brilligtove

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #10 on: February 26, 2017, 12:23:46 PM »
Sorry to take so long to reply, folks. It has been a been a busy week. Since this turned into a post by Wally O'Textee, I have highlighted names where I've responded to previous posts, whether I've quoted the post or not.

Johnny Slick and Drunken Idaho wanted me to clarify what Bloom's position and my own position are. This part is mostly about Bloom. The last paragraph or so is more about me.

Most people describe empathy in terms like "I feel what you feel." Bloom argues that in practice the term us used to refer to many experiences and behaviours that have little or nothing to do with feeling what someone else feels. In a sense the word empathy has experienced "scope creep." (See below where I attempt to look at Andrew's interpretations from Bloom's perspective.) Bloom argues that feeling what someone else feels almost always results in harmful outcomes. Specifically, empathy usually causes us to do bad things, not good things. The fact that it is assumed to be good - a positive sense is embedded in the word - does not match reality. The blind spot we have is that when we see or do bad things based on empathy we blame the bad things on other aspects of our nature.

Rational compassion, according to Bloom, accounts for most of the good things that come from supposed "empathetic" behaviours and experiences. Instead of being motivated by feeling what you feel, my motivation is to improve your situation. This leaves a person in a more rational and unclouded state of mind, and able to act rationally to alter the situation.

Bloom's attempt to redefine empathy is doomed to failure, I think. Just as there is no positive sense of the word 'manipulate', I don't expect to see a negative sense of 'empathy' any time soon. Even so, I think he has a point, and that the point is based on evidence: lack of empathy is almost never the cause of social problems, and more empathy is almost never the solution to social problems. In both situations compassion is the more effective motivator and reasoned, evidence-based action is the more effective behaviour.

I think Bloom goes a bit too far in being against empathy. As someone who largely lacks the capacity to experience emotional resonance with others, I can state that there are real disadvantages. I'd say it's analogous to being colourblind: there are some things I can do effortlessly that are very difficult for regular folks, and many things that I can't do at all and that regular folk take for granted.

empathy: I'm helping people I can relate to and feel bad for because I like how it makes me feel.

rational compassion: I'm a robot who has calculated that giving this $10 to an AIDs prevention program will help more people than if I buy you lunch Mr homeless man.  Guess you don't eat today.
While I think Andrew's statements are comically sarcastic and overblown, the essence is there. These versions are more in line with Bloom's positions:

  • empathy: I'm helping people I can relate to and feel bad for because I feel what they feel like how it makes me feel.
  • rational compassion: Based on evidence I have I'm a robot who has calculated that giving this $10 to an AIDS prevention program will maximize the total good that I can cause. help more people This is better than if I buy you lunch Mr homeless man. Guess you don't eat today based on my donation to social causes. [Immediately donate $10 to AIDS prevention program using phone.]

This is not an attempt to misquote or misinterpret Andrew's statements. It is an attempt to clarify Bloom's positions based on the examples Andrew provided. For example, Bloom argues persuasively that "because I like how it makes me feel" is not at all consistent with how people usually think about empathy.

At least in both cases you are trying to do good instead of saying "Fuck You" and pocketing the money.

Desert Fox, that's the compassion part of the equation, along with the 'take action' assumption. In one of his examples Bloom argued that if you want to help a homeless person, it is more effective to go volunteer at a shelter, or donate to one, or call your local politician than it is to give them money directly (a position that could be argued largely on facts.) But If you don't act then it isn't rational compassion. It is rationalizing away the discomfiting cognitive dissonance you feel at being confronted by your own lack of compassion.

Hey now, empathy is useful information even if you don't care about people

I'm not sure if this is incoherent or brilliant or both so I'm breaking it down in a 2x2 matrix. To keep this readable I'm using these definitions:

A. Compassionate = I care about the wellbeing of other people.
B. Uncompassionate = I do not care about the wellbeing of other people.

1. Empathetic = I feel what you feel.
2. Unempathetic = I do not feel what you feel.

Label are standard spreadsheet to help me reference these ideas after the table.

_
____________________
A. Compassionate
____________________
B. Uncompassionate
____________________
1. Empathetic I care about your wellbeing and I feel what you feel. I do not care about your wellbeing and I feel what you feel.
2. Unempathetic I care about your wellbeing and do not feel what you feel. I do not care about your wellbeing and do not feel what you feel.


I think you're describing B1. Someone in this state would feel the misery of a homeless person without any kind of emotional investment in that person. It seems to me that would be a disconcerting life, having one's own emotional state shifted by each random encounter while not caring about those people.

I'd put the pop-culture psychopath in B2. This is not to suggest that it's a good psychiatric definition for psychopathy or anything. At least we'd need an additional factor here, where a psychopath can recognize and understand what you feel without having any experience of emotional resonance.

Hrm.


My own experience is mostly A2. With many years of practice I've gotten reasonably good at recognizing what others are feeling, but it's an active process of observation and reasoning, and not the emotional resonance I observe in most people. For example, I have never felt sad because my daughter is sad. When she is stewing in in an unpleasant emotion it really shakes moms up: they feel her misery. My responses to our daughter's emotions are completely incomprehensible to them because they are not based on empathy. I will console our child when she's unhappy because I want her to not be unhappy. When she feels better I stop consoling her and we carry on. When her bio mom consoles our daughter they end up in a feedback loop where mom feels unhappy making daughter feel worse making mom feel worse making... They end up wallowing in misery instead of dealing with the situation and moving on.

...I didn't expect this post to be confessional in nature, but there you go. :)
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Offline brilligtove

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #11 on: February 26, 2017, 12:32:04 PM »
Pick a fight later, after I've shit all over empathy and compassion in general.

Hey now, empathy is useful information even if you don't care about people

True.  The heartless Lady McBeth style character will out compete the pure sociopath.

I'm not clear on what this statement means. Could you clarify what you mean by 'heartless' and 'sociopath'? To me they are nearly synonymous, so I don't think I understand this position.

Bloom might argue that Lady MacBeth is an example of the dangers of empathy. (I'm reaching a bit here since my knowledge of Macbeth is not at all deep.) In the beginning she only empathizes with her husband, and only in a narrow aspect of his emotional life: the desire for power. Feeling no compassion for anyone (she is a terrible person) she embarks on a destructive path to achieve that goal. Bloom might even argue that her guilt is based in discovering an empathy for the man she killed while losing empathy with her husband. (Still reaching. :) )
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Online Johnny Slick

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #12 on: February 26, 2017, 04:31:03 PM »
Okay, so it did mean essentially what I thought it'd mean. I guess my primary issue here is this: there are a lot of interactions you have with other people that not only *only* require empathy but instances of "rational compassion" actually hurts things. Like, I don't know, a friend complains to you that they're having problems with money, or is having relationship issues, etc.... it's entirely possible that all they want out of you is empathy/sympathy and if you go ahead and, like, give them advice or go a step further and gift them money or something, you're intruding on things to a large extent (in the latter case, there's no such thing as a "gift" really; even if you assume it is and make it clear that you never expect the money back, the other party's relationship with you will be forever altered by that. It's just the way human minds work, unfortunately). You can play with the terms and say that that violates the precepts of rational compassion but I really think that's stretching things.

My other issue here is that there is a very... how do I say... conservative stripe to this. Rational compassion, I think, implies two things:

1. You understand what the other party's issue is as well if not better than they do.
2. You understand how to fix the other party's issue as well if not better than they do.

I tend not to give money to homeless people because, frankly, I'm selfish and I don't usually carry cash. I live in the city and see many of the same panhandlers every day and my experience is that if I give someone money once or twice they will come to expect this from me every time I see them. There's also a point to where I feel like the way humans work, if I give money to a homeless person it'll make me feel like I've already done all my good things for the week and so don't need to give to charity (which, granted, I also don't do enough) or lobby for public programs to treat these folks. What I *don't* do is avoid giving them money because they'll just spend it on drugs. I don't actually *know* if they're better off or not on drugs - I know that sounds like a weird thing to say but an awful lot of people who are on the streets suffer from some kind or another of mental illness and, frankly, medicate themselves with illicit drugs (and yes, even stuff like heroin is useful in treating chronic pain or perhaps even MDD or BPD - it's way addictive, of course, but it's not like you're going to be able to score lithium from your local dealer). Or hell, maybe they just want to do drugs because drugs are fun or because their life is already too fucked up to save and they may as well have fun with it. I feel like it's not really my place to tell these people that they can't ruin their own lives, or even that their lives are ruined in their own terms, necessarily.

Related: James Baldwin's short story Sonny's Blues:

http://swcta.net/moore/files/2012/02/sonnysblues.pdf

Seriously, when it comes to welfare in particular I am a proponent of just giving the poor money. Not food stamps that come with the provision that they can only spend it on certain things, not attached to people who periodically inspect the recipients to make sure that they are living a "proper" lifestyle, just a check every two weeks that they can spend on whatever it is they feel like they should spend the money on. Yes, I get that there are moral hazards here (for example, the fear that some of these people will take welfare while making money for stuff under the table - I'm not saying this can never happen and in fact growing up there was a friend of the family who did exactly this so I know it happens) but the thing about moral hazards is that we never really know how big of an issue they're going to be until you face them. My own family's relationship with welfare, by the way, was that we felt deep shame for having to get on it in the first place, and while there's this kind of fucked up loophole in the US system where a a family with 2 breadwinners can work full time at crap jobs, bring in *less* than what they were getting when only one member of the family was able to work, and still get kicked off of welfare because reasons (an issue that, by the way, ought to be closed by providing a sliding scale, but I digress), but nevertheless when my parents faced this point they *still* continued to keep those crappy jobs because, like the vast majority of people, I think, they actually preferred working and supporting themselves to not working and relying on the state for support.

Anyway, that's just one example of why I'm not the biggest fan. I feel like the concept of rational compassion attempts to circumvent this by insisting that a. there is a "rational" solution that will resolve issues like AIDS or poverty or cancer or [insert issue here] where, rationally speaking, there *is* no single resolution because people are complicated. Sometimes - a lot of the time, in fact - the actual best thing we can do is ask people what it is that they want or need and provide that for them. Yes, there are exceptions but I don't know that there are so many that we need to recalibrate things like empathy.
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Offline brilligtove

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #13 on: February 26, 2017, 11:24:53 PM »
(click to show/hide)

Huh. I hadn't thought of this from the guaranteed income perspective (given what's on in that thread).

The presumption that I know what's good for you - excellent observation. That was a large part of my discomfort with this argument, but I wasn't able to articulate it. To be clear: frequently I think I know what's better for you than you do - for the set of "you" that includes "my child" and to a lesser degree "my partner" and to a lesser degree my friends, and lesser, my associates, and lesser....etc...

My vantage is biased in that my job for a decade or two was to figure out what's best for some "you" and then manipulate that "you" into achieveing it (in business). In general I establish my moral compass by ruthless inquiry into the needs and wants of the "you".

On the distortions of money - that's a huge other topic that doesn't fly well in this place in my experience. I agree with you, and all the effects you describe are predictable with a coherent theory of debt and evaluation.

Your last paragraph lost me. What is the 'this' in 'circumvent this'? I don't know if I agree or not - I didn't follow what you were saying here.

BTW, I agree that rational compassion can be maladaptive in personal relationships. I have to meta the meta to get myself into a position where I can be supportive to Mrs. Brilligtove when she's upset and venting. The first instinct is to just fix it. I can't, so the next approach is to tell her how to fix it. That's gonna die on the vine, so the final effort is to empathetic as a way to offer support and bolster her morale/strength. If I'm lucky I get to the third stage without opening my dangertrapmouth ... but goram I want to fix it or tell her how!
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Offline Andrew Clunn

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #14 on: February 26, 2017, 11:36:26 PM »
Pick a fight later, after I've shit all over empathy and compassion in general.

Hey now, empathy is useful information even if you don't care about people

True.  The heartless Lady McBeth style character will out compete the pure sociopath.

I'm not clear on what this statement means. Could you clarify what you mean by 'heartless' and 'sociopath'? To me they are nearly synonymous, so I don't think I understand this position.

Bloom might argue that Lady MacBeth is an example of the dangers of empathy. (I'm reaching a bit here since my knowledge of Macbeth is not at all deep.) In the beginning she only empathizes with her husband, and only in a narrow aspect of his emotional life: the desire for power. Feeling no compassion for anyone (she is a terrible person) she embarks on a destructive path to achieve that goal. Bloom might even argue that her guilt is based in discovering an empathy for the man she killed while losing empathy with her husband. (Still reaching. :) )

Empathy is useful in being able to model and predict how others are or will react to a given situation.  The downside is being thusly driven by your own emotions this way.  A sociopath may be able to be more level headed in some regards, but loses much of the modelling and predictive powers gained through empathy.  Someone who experiences empathy but trains themself to ignore their emotional reactions to others (such as Lady McBeth who forces herself to stop caring so that she can do "what need to be done") is the ideal in this paradigm.

Of course why such a person would continue to want to help the poor and suffering after gaining such an aloof perspective is beyond me.  In fact I'd say from personal experience that they do not.
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