Author Topic: Too much empathy  (Read 906 times)

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Offline Andrew Clunn

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Too much empathy
« on: December 28, 2016, 12:43:12 PM »
http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/12/paul-bloom-makes-a-weirdly-convincing-anti-empathy-argument.html

One thing that I find odd, is that while we very clearly see that emotions like anger can cloud our judgement, there seems to be this view among some people that you can never care enough, or that a lack of empathy is the cause of so much of the world's injustice and irrationality.  I think we may have our Western history of dualism and the notion of 'positive' and 'negative' emotions to blame.  Really they should all just be viewed as readily available neurological heuristics for quick decision making.
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Offline Mr. Beagle

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #1 on: December 28, 2016, 01:11:41 PM »
The fatal flaw in our empathy brain circuits, one of several moral decision-making brain functions (along with, at least, goal-seeking, rule-making and meta-cognition) is that the realization by the empathetic person that you can't save everybody by empathy alone.

Some people use that as an excuse, but Spock-like rationality also has its limits as a moral compass.

All of our rules-goals-empathy-meta functions need to be on the table for difficult moral decision-making.
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Offline Enkidu Shamesh

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #2 on: December 28, 2016, 01:13:30 PM »
Reminds me of the idea of "idiot compassion" exemplified by the story of the scorpion and the frog:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scorpion_and_the_Frog

Quote

A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, they would both drown. Considering this, the frog agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When the frog asks the scorpion why, the scorpion replies that it was in its nature to do so.

Though the fable is recent, its outlook that certain natures cannot be reformed was common in ancient times, as in Aesop's fable of The Farmer and the Viper. Here the scorpion’s reply indicates that what is fundamentally vicious will not change.


Too much of anything is bad, even being nice. I like that the guy in the interview below says that another word for idiot compassion is enabling. This is why I am such a dick to and about drug addicts. If you are the slightest bit nice to them they will take advantage of that, use you until you are used up, if you let them. Don't get me wrong, I support treatment over incarceration, I'm just not gonna let you stay at my house or spend any time at all with you. If you work where I work I will do my best to get you fired (unless you are in recovery). We had a server O.D. at work last year - she passed out and turned blue. Fuck you if you think you're going to come to my work, get fucked up on drugs and then die. Destroy yourself somewhere else - being nice to people in that state doesn't work. Junkies. Are. The. Worst.

https://www.reddit.com/r/Buddhism/comments/23zdhk/idiot_compassion_interview_with_pema_ch%C3%B6dr%C3%B6n/

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Student: I'm interested in the idea of idiot compassion that was in Ken McLeod's book [Wake Up To Your Life]", and wishing compassion for someone who's doing harm to you or that you need to remove yourself from. How do you differentiate the feeling of compassion and the need to remove yourself from a damaging situation?

Pema: Idiot compassion is a great expression, which was actually coined by Trungpa Rinpoche. It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it's whats called enabling. It's the general tendency to give people what they want because you can't bear to see them suffering. Basically, you're not giving them what they need. You're trying to get away from your feeling of I can't bear to see them suffering. In other words, you're doing it for yourself. You're not really doing it for them.

. . .

We all know a lot of stories of people who had to hit that kind of bottom, where the people that they loved stopped giving them the wrong kind of compassion and just walked out. Then sometimes that wakes a person up and they start to do what they need to do.


« Last Edit: December 28, 2016, 01:16:31 PM by Enkidu Shamesh »

Offline HanEyeAm

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #3 on: December 29, 2016, 11:49:15 AM »
Thanks for the links and quotes. Very interesting stuff.

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Offline 2397

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #4 on: December 29, 2016, 03:58:46 PM »
There's far too much suffering in the world for any one person to care about it all and still function. Empathy needs to be distributed and causally focused.

Offline Johnny Slick

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #5 on: December 29, 2016, 04:14:33 PM »
While I agree that you have to place checks on everything, including empathy, I'm not *entirely* sure that drug addicts are the best of examples. I mean, yes, you're totally right, a lot of them have some really messed up life situations that make their desire to use that much more compelling, but I feel like part of proper empathy (as opposed to just mirroring their emotions, which is sympathy) is to understand that what they desire leads them down that path of destructive behavior and as hard as the other choice is, you're just not going to help them by enabling them.

I don't know... yes, there may be a point to where there is too much empathy being given but I also feel like as a society we are not even remotely close to hitting that point, and in fact rarely if ever do I see individual people hitting it either.
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Offline SnarlPatrick

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #6 on: January 11, 2017, 09:03:58 AM »
There's a book called "Against Empathy" by Paul Bloom. Subtitled, "the case for rational compassion."

His thesis is that Empathy, the kind where you feel the suffering of others, leads to irrational preferential treatment (i.e. racism) reactionary behaviour, burnout, and generally negative effects on decision-making and well-being. Whereas a more dispassionate form of rational compassion is able to make more appropriate and pragmatic decisions relating to others' suffering or wellbeing.

He and Sam discuss it on this podcast https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/abusing-dolores
And responds in writing: https://bostonreview.net/forum/against-empathy/sam-harris-response-against-empathy-harris

Quote
Bloom’s thesis is that emotional empathy, the ability to identify with others and “feel their pain,” is generally a poor guide for ethical behavior. As he acknowledges, many will find this idea grotesque—how could sharing another’s pain be anything less than a virtue? Indeed, many readers will feel that their very humanity depends on the strength of their emotion when witnessing suffering of the sort on display in Gaza. To question the merits of empathy is to question love, compassion, and basic human decency.

To be moved to action by empathy is to lurch blindly toward who knows what.
However, Bloom likens empathy to anger, and the comparison is remarkably astute. We want to be able to feel anger when circumstances warrant it, but then we want to stop feeling it the moment it is no longer useful. A person who is unable to feel anger would be, as Bloom says, “the perfect victim,” but feeling too much of it reliably leads to misery and chaos. Generally speaking, to have one’s moral judgment colored by anger is to have it clouded. Bloom argues that empathy is like anger in this respect, and I am convinced that he is right.
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Offline Zed

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #7 on: January 12, 2017, 12:38:56 PM »
I think empathy is only bad if it leads someone to be counterproductive towards achieving a best outcome (I know, "best outcome" is vague and can vary based on context). From a personal-interaction perspective, I think empathy is generally a good thing. Relating with another person's perspective has benefits. Most of these are related to psychological and social well-being, and it leads to people not wanting to do harm to others. I can't imagine living in a world where no cared about how others feel. Imagine how depression and crime would skyrocket. Anyway, having empathy doesn't mean you're required to enable...it just makes it a little more difficult to make purely rational decisions. I think we should strive to have empathy while being rational about how to best help people. Even having empathy when you can't help someone provides perspective on others' experiences. Just because empathy can make someone feel guilty and/or powerless doesn't mean we shouldn't have it. In my opinion, only someone in a privileged position can say we should tone down our empathy. It's like saying, let me enjoy my privileges and not have to feel guilty about it.

Maybe I'm not thinking about it correctly, but I don't really understand why there are no "good" or "bad" emotions. As the OP said, they're just neurological states. But they evolved to be there for a reason...evolution made us prefer experiencing some emotions over others. For example, most people favor things that make them happy and hope to avoid things that make them sad. Perhaps on a philosophical level, they are just two states of emotions that can lead to positive, neutral, or negative outcomes (i.e. seeking happiness can lead to overeating, drug use, dangerous thrill-seeking, etc.). But if we seek one and avoid the other, aren't we "wired" to perceive one as good and the other as bad?

Offline SnarlPatrick

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #8 on: January 13, 2017, 02:58:31 AM »
As an example.... someone looking at the suffering of poor single mothers in US inner cities might be moved by empathy to support generous welfare and child subsidies. Someone with less empathy, but still with compassion, could be more dispassionate in analysing the large-scale consequences of such a policy, and find that subsidising single parenthood helps it to proliferate, and ultimately does more harm than good, based on the data of child outcomes from these homes.  (expanding ghettos/high crime rates/drug abuse/etc)

I think this is at the root of many left/right disagreements.
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Offline Zed

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #9 on: January 13, 2017, 11:24:16 AM »
Lots of assumptions in that example. And I think beliefs about root causes is at the heart of left-right disagreements, not really empathy. A conservative may say that lack of a family unit leads to poor single mothers, therefore supporting welfare promotes single families and continued poverty among single mothers. A liberal could say that an economic system that promotes severely imbalanced wealth distribution leads to poor single mothers and that we should have an economy where a single income could support a family without welfare. No empathizing required in either analysis.

I still don't see why empathy means someone can't make rational decisions. It just means you'll feel badly when making a dispassionate decision. Why spare you of suffering for your decision if you're going to make someone else suffer with your decision?

Offline Johnny Slick

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #10 on: January 13, 2017, 11:46:01 AM »
If that's the best argument the right wing can put forward, it's a pretty terrible one, although frankly I think it does get at why there is a divide and maybe even why the left is slightly more likely to accept science at the moment. In the specific example the right wing is concerned with concepts of moral hazards like welfare moms or whatever whereas the left happens to be on the side where if you actually, like, look at the data and at countries who provide large social safety nets (the Scandinavian countries spring to mind), you see that these things are actually pretty effective and the moral hazards, they just aren't there in the way the right wing fears.

See also: this idea that not punishing the 100-odd people who have to get late-term abortions in this country every year enough will make it so that women will, like, abort fetuses 3 days before they're scheduled to birth healthy children or something. See also: the fear that allowing people born with man parts to identify as women will lead to a spate of peeping toms and women's restroom assaults.

Again, I do think that there is a problem, potentially, with misplaced empathy, or with mere sympathy instead of empathy. Sometimes what a person wants for themselves is not what they need for themselves and we should be mindful of that. I think this idea that there is "too much" is just a load of hot garbage. The need to not want to empathize with others is understandable: it's a large world with a lot of pain inside. Let's not pretend that the lack of empathy is a virtue.
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 GodSlayer

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #11 on: January 13, 2017, 11:53:05 AM »
One thing that I find odd, is that while we very clearly see that emotions like anger can cloud our judgement, there seems to be this view among some people that you can never care enough

mmm.
I'd say if it interferes with your happiness, it's too much. and there's always something to be sad about if you can burden yourself with sadness over problems that don't belong to you. you'll never run out of sick people and dying children and suffering animals.
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Offline Mr. Beagle

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #12 on: January 13, 2017, 12:55:03 PM »
Any goal-seeking ethical action has the risk of coming out the wrong way. That doesn't mean you discard the goal, rather it means that you must be prepared to address the unforeseens.

Statistically every choice to begin consuming alcohol puts the person at risk of being unable to handle it. You can take the Mormon approach (don't start) or the free market approach (your choice, your tough shit) or find ways to allow consumption while still addressing the unavoidable percentage of bad outcomes.
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Offline Colonel Panic

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #13 on: January 13, 2017, 03:55:10 PM »
Some people have very unhealthy diets, so maybe one could make a similar case against eating food. 

Offline Andrew Clunn

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Re: Too much empathy
« Reply #14 on: January 13, 2017, 04:03:12 PM »
Any goal-seeking ethical action has the risk of coming out the wrong way. That doesn't mean you discard the goal, rather it means that you must be prepared to address the unforeseens.

Statistically every choice to begin consuming alcohol puts the person at risk of being unable to handle it. You can take the Mormon approach (don't start) or the free market approach (your choice, your tough shit) or find ways to allow consumption while still addressing the unavoidable percentage of bad outcomes.

Vague nonspecific plan that elevates a moral imperative.  Also you listed it with a moral choice and an ethical societal policy.  Not saying you're wrong.  Just saying that your analogy makes no sense and I don't know what your point was.
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