Author Topic: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion  (Read 697 times)

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Offline brilligtove

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #15 on: February 26, 2017, 11:44:30 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.

I think I understand your response, but I'm not sure because I'm still unclear on what you mean by sociopath and heartless. So:
Quote
Could you clarify what you mean by 'heartless' and 'sociopath'?

I'm being specific and pedantic because I want to painstakingly not misquote, strawman, or otherwise misrepresent our position. If you're gonna destroy me, destroy me for who I am. Ditto the reverse. :)
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Online Johnny Slick

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #16 on: February 27, 2017, 12:06:59 AM »
(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!
Argh, I feel like I deleted a sentence in there and never re added it. The it is the problem of a subjective existence. I mean, there may well be some kind of ultimate, rational, best case solution, but we rarely know what it is. And sure, sometimes you have to act on the information you've got, but I don't think that excuses elevating what you're calling rational compassion over empathy. Necessarily. Sometimes, sure, rational compassion might be the best choice. Your example of knowing what your child needs better than they do is a good example of that. I just think that the instances of when that applies to adults with full cognitive function is relatively rare and in most cases is paternalistic and even a bit arrogant.
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Offline Andrew Clunn

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #17 on: February 27, 2017, 12:23:21 AM »
Sociopaths don't really understand what other people are feeling.  They might be able to fake it with practice, but others emotions are not contagious to them in the way that it is for most people.

One who feels these emotions, but choses to consistently ignore them would generally be regarded as heartless by society.  Both might in fact, but in my usage prior I meant this as a tongue in cheek pejorative towards one who would choose to reject empathy despite having the capacity for it.
I agree with Clunn, which makes me feel all weird inside.

Offline brilligtove

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #18 on: February 27, 2017, 12:37:01 AM »
Argh, I feel like I deleted a sentence in there and never re added it. The it is the problem of a subjective existence. I mean, there may well be some kind of ultimate, rational, best case solution, but we rarely know what it is. And sure, sometimes you have to act on the information you've got, but I don't think that excuses elevating what you're calling rational compassion over empathy. Necessarily. Sometimes, sure, rational compassion might be the best choice. Your example of knowing what your child needs better than they do is a good example of that. I just think that the instances of when that applies to adults with full cognitive function is relatively rare and in most cases is paternalistic and even a bit arrogant.

AhHa! We totes get to disaggreeatate on somethatisthosity!

...ok we'll take it in stages.


"The it is the problem of a subjective existence. I mean, there may well be some kind of ultimate, rational, best case solution, but we rarely know what it is."

Agreed. In human (social/political/medical/younamal) situations there is rarely an objectively correct answer. Less rare is the objectively (evidence-based) less-wrong answer.

"And sure, sometimes you have to act on the information you've got..."

We are ALWAYS limited to the information we have, instead of the information we need. Still, we must act. (Not Churchill but come on totes something he'd've said better and in the same vein. "You go to war with the information you have, not the information you need.")

"...but I don't think that excuses elevating what you're calling rational compassion over empathy. Necessarily. Sometimes, sure, rational compassion might be the best choice."

About half of "The Better Angels Of Our Nature" (Pinker) is dedicated to wallowing the reader in the viscous brutality of The Past. We, today, can't imagine, so Pinker drags us through the muck for 300 pages or so. Much of this book is an effort to expose us to overwhelming evidence that empathy is almost always not going to get you closer to any given goal.

"Your example of knowing what your child needs better than they do is a good example of that. I just think that the instances of when that applies to adults with full cognitive function is relatively rare and in most cases is paternalistic and even a bit arrogant."

How many clients know what they need when they come to our for software?  Humans rarely know what we need, let alone what we want.
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Offline brilligtove

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #19 on: February 27, 2017, 12:38:56 AM »
dupe post sorry
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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #20 on: February 27, 2017, 04:41:40 AM »
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.

Other people are your context. 
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Online Johnny Slick

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #21 on: February 27, 2017, 06:37:24 PM »
Quote from: brillig
How many clients know what they need when they come to our for software?  Humans rarely know what we need, let alone what we want.
So, this is the bit that I choose to pick on because I do work with people about targeted software on a daily basis. No, they don't usually know exactly what they want, at least not in terms of "how are you going to make this for me". People ask for stuff that they think is really simple but is actually very complicated for me, and sometimes they don't ask for things that they think are too complicated which are actually really easy for me to put together. The thing is, as an enterprise web developer the thing that I *never* do is decide I know what they want better than they do. They give me the things that they want in their application, I deliver those things to them as best they can, and if they decide that one of those things they wanted is actually not what they want at all, they tell me and I go back to the drawing board. This is, like, the essence of Agile programming. We iterate and iterate until we have a product that does everything the customer wants it to do. Yes, it absolutely is uglier, takes longer to do (well, sort of - if you spend six months writing something that the client doesn't want, it's all well and good that you were efficient but if you were efficiently creating something with no value, you basically did no work), and a lot of the time the things that non-techies ask you to do makes no sense, but at the end of the day with what *I* do, it's still far and away the best approach.

I know that this is far from the only way to build applications but I think waterfall works even less well for social services than it does for enterprise web development. There's a lot of stuff here that I think actually paralyzes the "we ought to know best" / waterfall method crowd that *doesn't* affect the agile method crowd because the latter accepts that whatever we're doing *now* doesn't have to be what we do in the near future. In the UBI example we start out by giving people money because that seems to be the best way to just give them what it is that they want and then down the road we see how well it works. As long as we're not tied in to the process - which I think, too, is a big hang-up of hyper-rational thinking, that people tend to invest more in the model than in what the model produces - we can evaluate how well the endeavor worked and go from there. If it turns out that the poor are *no* better off than we can scrap the idea (and, with data, revisit why it failed); if they're better off but there's still room for improvement, we can work with that. All the while, we're talking to everyone and, yes, not only understanding how they feel but doing what we can to meet those needs that they may have.

I don't think that empathy causes analysis paralysis at all. I agree that it can lead you to suboptimal results sometimes but I think that philosophically we should always start with empathy first and only go to rational compassion or whatever *after* we've established that empathy is not enough. I think empathy can get you pretty damn far.
Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.

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Offline brilligtove

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Re: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
« Reply #22 on: February 27, 2017, 10:07:55 PM »
Quote from: brillig
How many clients know what they need when they come to our for software?  Humans rarely know what we need, let alone what we want.
So, this is the bit that I choose to pick on because I do work with people about targeted software on a daily basis. No, they don't usually know exactly what they want, at least not in terms of "how are you going to make this for me". People ask for stuff that they think is really simple but is actually very complicated for me, and sometimes they don't ask for things that they think are too complicated which are actually really easy for me to put together. The thing is, as an enterprise web developer the thing that I *never* do is decide I know what they want better than they do. They give me the things that they want in their application, I deliver those things to them as best they can, and if they decide that one of those things they wanted is actually not what they want at all, they tell me and I go back to the drawing board. This is, like, the essence of Agile programming. We iterate and iterate until we have a product that does everything the customer wants it to do. Yes, it absolutely is uglier, takes longer to do (well, sort of - if you spend six months writing something that the client doesn't want, it's all well and good that you were efficient but if you were efficiently creating something with no value, you basically did no work), and a lot of the time the things that non-techies ask you to do makes no sense, but at the end of the day with what *I* do, it's still far and away the best approach.

I know that this is far from the only way to build applications but I think waterfall works even less well for social services than it does for enterprise web development. There's a lot of stuff here that I think actually paralyzes the "we ought to know best" / waterfall method crowd that *doesn't* affect the agile method crowd because the latter accepts that whatever we're doing *now* doesn't have to be what we do in the near future. In the UBI example we start out by giving people money because that seems to be the best way to just give them what it is that they want and then down the road we see how well it works. As long as we're not tied in to the process - which I think, too, is a big hang-up of hyper-rational thinking, that people tend to invest more in the model than in what the model produces - we can evaluate how well the endeavor worked and go from there. If it turns out that the poor are *no* better off than we can scrap the idea (and, with data, revisit why it failed); if they're better off but there's still room for improvement, we can work with that. All the while, we're talking to everyone and, yes, not only understanding how they feel but doing what we can to meet those needs that they may have.

I don't think that empathy causes analysis paralysis at all. I agree that it can lead you to suboptimal results sometimes but I think that philosophically we should always start with empathy first and only go to rational compassion or whatever *after* we've established that empathy is not enough. I think empathy can get you pretty damn far.

I used that example because we both live in that world.* The core point is that humans do not simply understand what we want or need. Discovering these is fraught with peril and difficult to pursue for many reasons.

But is feeling what your clients feel really the effective way to start? You're not making friends. You're trying to understand and respect the gains and losses that the stakeholder is experiencing from their position, and address these as best you can. When your client is tearing out their hair in a panic over a bug or a missing feature does it help the situation for you to freak the fuck out too? I'm not saying sit there like a dead fish muttering 'calm down live long and prosper' or something: you have to respect their emotional state and show enough intensity to connect with them or you'll get nowhere. A rational compassion approach would be to display significant emotional intensity to connect with the stakeholder without engaging in the same emotions (e.g. Acting!) and then work to understand the source of the stress and deal with it. To talk them off the ledge, as it were.

Actually, there's a good extreme example. Should the suicide prevention line have people who use empathy or who use rational compassion? I seem to recall comedy skits with the counsellor hanging themselves with the phone cord because empathy, right?

No, I'm not making light of suicide. It's just a stark example of a situation where being empathic would increase the damage.
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* I didn't write the Agile Extension to BABOK 2 or the Agile Perspective in BABOK 3, but I worked very closely with Shane Hastie and other Agile gurus in an effort to make it represent the realities of being a BA or Designer in that environment.
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