From empathy to kindness and compassion

We said in the first installment in this series on empathy that we're at least as interested in kindness and compassion as we are in empathy, and a lot of the arguments in this installment grow out of the notion that we should put together moral codes and systems that result in kindness and compassion, without requiring of people the neural work of empathy.

As we mentioned last time, religions and governments are two types of institutions that attempt to instill such codes, but they do so in such a manner that frequently sets up us-versus-them scenarios: if you don't ascribe to my faith, my attempt to instill a moral code on you based on my faith simply makes you angry.

Similarly, one need look no farther than our own Congress here in the U.S. to see an us-versus-them mentality on even the smallest thing, never mind if we were to try to instill moral rules instead of merely a code of governance.

First off, why even have a code? In her book Ordinary Grace, Kathleen Brehony relates an old Middle Eastern saying: "Trust Allah, but tie your camel to a post" (p. 174).

In other words, trust in a benevolent power, but recognize there are still assholes around.


The arguments against empathy as a moral code largely fall under the guise of empathy not being enough. Of course it's not. Nothing is; if we only needed one thing, we wouldn't have had to build a whole system.

We do know from the first part of this series that empathy is a specific response, both emotional and physical, that can be identified in the brain.

"Some people use empathy as referring to everything good," writes Paul Bloom in Against Empathy, "as a synonym for morality and kindness and compassion. And many of the pleas that people make for more empathy just express the view that it would be better if we were nicer to one another" (p. 3).

Well, yes, it would be better if we were nicer to one another. That's the whole point. But we can't force empathy. Some people just don't have it, as we saw with James Fallon in The Psychopath Inside.

That's why we create systems.

But, Bloom writes, a system based on empathy is not enough; it doesn't reach enough people. We can empathize with one or two people simultaneously, he points out, but not millions. "This perverse moral mathematics is part of the reason why governments and individuals care more about a little girl stuck in a well than about events that will affect millions or billions" (p. 34)

Barry Schwartz, in a book of the same name, argues for what he calls Practical Wisdom, and notes that empathy is part of the schema.

[E]mpathy — the capacity to imagine what someone else is thinking and feeling — is critical for the perception that practical wisdom demands. Such empathy includes both cognitive skill — the ability to perceive the situation as it is perceived by another — and emotional skill — the capacity to understand what another person is feeling (p 21).

Ultimately, empathy is an emotion, and it can take away our ability to make good decisions. "Feelings are compelling," write Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind, "but not always reliable. Often, they distort reality, deprive us of insight, and needlessly damage our relationships" (p. 34).

Schwartz describes a hospital janitor whose job description is so focused on cleaning that it doesn't even mention people. The janitor, however, understands he's also there to make patients and their families welcome. It's his job to vacuum the lounge, but maybe he deviates from his normal path because a family who has been there all day is napping. That's empathy at play in the right way — the janitor's emotional quotient is high enough that he is comfortable diverting from what his bosses want.

On the other hand, Schwartz describes a doctor who had such empathy for an elderly cancer patient that he spared the patient the indignity of rolling him over to check for bed sores, and the patient went into septic shock. The episode showed too much empathy and not enough detachment.


So maybe empathy isn't always good?

As we mentioned near the end of the post on systematizing moral codes, humans can make exceptions that machines can't. A robot would have saved the cancer patient's life by checking for bed sores, because that's what its programming said to do. But the robot also would have vacuumed the lounge, waking the family who was finally getting some rest.

"There is a long history of suspicion that emotion is the enemy of good reasoning and sound judgment, and rightly so," Schwartz notes. "Emotions can often control us instead of the reverse" (p. 21).

But emotion isn't all bad, he points out later. "Practical wisdom is not simply knowing the right thing to do but actually being motivated to do it. And often it is emotion that propels us to act" (p. 75).

Whatever it is that propels us to act, we still need to determine what it is we should act upon — what, exactly, are the actions we should take?

InThe Moral Arc, Michael Shermer writes abut morality.

Morality involves how we think and act toward other sentient beings and whether our thoughts and actions are right (good) or wrong (bad) with regard to their survival and flourishing. ... [A] principle of moral good is this: if other persons are involved in an action, then always act with their good in mind, and never act in a way that it leads to their loss or suffering (through force or fraud) (pp. 334-5).

Bloom argues that morality is so important to us it seems to have evolved to be an ingrained feature of humans. "There is a lot of evidence," he writes, "that the foundations of morality have evolved through the process of natural selection. We didn't think them up" (p. 6).

Schwartz calls his practical wisdom a "moral skill" (p. 8).

Bloom does point out some problems with empathy that address its specificity. "Empathy causes us to overrate present costs and underrate future costs" he writes (p. 55), pointing to the murder rate in Chicago.


Way more schoolchildren are killed every year in Chicago than were killed at Sandy Hook. Donations poured into Newtown after the shooting despite the fact that it's a wealthy community and they had no place to put all the stuff and asked people to stop donating, but most people don't send anything to Chicago (p. 32)

Humans also, as a species, create tribes, and we are more likely to support those in our own tribe. "Intellectually," Bloom writes, "a white American might believe that a black person matters just as much as a white person, but he or she will typically find it a lot easier to empathize with the plight of the latter than the former" (p. 31).

Empathy isn't the only thing we need to make good moral choices, he argues. "There is more to kindness and morality than empathy. To think otherwise is either to define empathy so broadly as to gut it of all context" (p. 26).

"Consider things like compassion and concern," he writes. "You don't empathize with people dying of malaria but you certainly feel compassion or concern for them" (pp. 40-41).

Writing in Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker considers the wisdom of crowds. If you were to ask a hundred people how many jelly beans were in a jar or how much a prize pig weighed, you'd get a wide range of answers, but you would find that when you averaged out the answers, you'd be pretty close to the correct figure.

The wisdom of crowds can also elevate our moral sentiments. When a wide enough circle of people confer on how to treat each other, the conversation is bound to go in certain directions ... we'd be wiser to negotiate a social contract that puts us in a positive-sum game: neither gets to harm the other, and both are encourage to help the other (p. 28).

If we've done that down the generations, perhaps Bloom's assertion that some morality has evolved with us through natural selection is true.

"For all the flaws in human nature," Pinker continues, "it contains the seeds of its own improvement, as long as it comes up with norms and institutions that channel interests into universal benefits" (p. 28).

In other words, we don't need to set up all these us-versus-them scenarios. It benefits us to create win-win propositions to move humanity forward.

In his manifesto Team Human, Douglas Rushkoff really puts forth why we might want to keep pushing win-win solutions:

We cannot be fully human alone. Anything that brings us together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human, and less able to exercise our individual or collective will (pp. 3-4).

Species in the wild have grown to cooperate, and that's how they survive. Maybe we'll learn that for ourselves, too, whether it means moving toward cooperation through empathy, or through something more akin to kindness and compassion.

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  • […] Links: • Against Empathy by Paul Bloom • The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon • Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker • Ordinary Grace by Kathleen Brehony • Practical Wisdom by Barry Schwartz • The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt • The Moral Arc by Michael Shermer • Chicago crime statistics • Sandy Hook shooting • Wisdom of crowds • Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff • JoshShear.com: From empathy to compassion and kindness […]

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