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.
|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.
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.