A friend pointed me to an excellent article by David Brooks, "The Limits of Empathy
." Brooks writes:
People who are empathetic are more sensitive to the perspectives and sufferings of others. They are more likely to make compassionate moral judgments.
The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.
In the early days of the Holocaust, Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it. Subjects in the famous Milgram experiments felt anguish as they appeared to administer electric shocks to other research subjects, but they pressed on because some guy in a lab coat told them to.
Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost.
Another example could be the "Good Samaritan" study
, where the amount of hurriedness by the subjects had a bigger effect than the moral salience of what they were thinking about.
These claims are generally true. I don't deny that other factors -- including, as Brooks mentions, finding a dime in a phone booth -- can have bigger short-term influences. However, there are a few things to say about this.(1) People vary in how much they're affected by empathy
You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.
This may be true for most people but not for everyone. I personally have walked across across the street several times to help a poor person buy food. In fact, I did so somewhat against my better judgment, because I knew theoretically that the money was better spent helping animals, but I didn't want to become cold-hearted. I have also spent hours and hours squishing dying worms in the rain
out of concern for them. I would not have done this without feeling empathy.
So, just as I can generalize from one example
by seeing a close link between empathy and action, so too Brooks may be doing the same in his case when not seeing such a link. I think the truth is that different people vary.
Brooks goes on to say:
There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper
, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern.
So as he admits in the second sentence, some studies have reached the conclusion that empathy matters. And even though empathy is easily crushed, that doesn't mean it always is. Sometimes people aren't in a hurry. Sometimes they aren't pressured by an experimenter to shock a victim. Sometimes they're in a sufficiently calm state that their empathy can lead them to donate to charity, or give up
meat, or vote for more humane policies.
I did a brief web search and didn't find a lot of studies, but "Empathy, Emotional Expressiveness, and Prosocial Behavior
" suggested once again that people vary in the degree of connection between empathy and altruism:
Boys' empathy, in turn, was a strong predictor of prosocial behavior, R^2 = ,55. In contrast, girls' empathy was related to prosocial behaviors with friends, R^2 ~ .13, but not to cooperation with peers.
The argument isn't about whether empathy sometimes has an effect but whether it's the most efficient point of leverage for inducing greater altruism.(2) Empathy leads to long-term change
To some extent I think Brooks and I are talking about different things. Brooks portrays empathy as a fleeting feeling, "a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them." This is not really what I'm after. Back in 2007, I had the following exchange with David Pearce
: there are euphoriant drugs known in the scientific counterculture as"empathogens" that reliably induce compassionate well-being. The most famous empathogen is of course MDMA (Ecstasy) - the "hug drug". [...]Brian
: Thanks, David. I don't know much about empathogens, but if the major effect is to produce a feeling of "I love the world and the world loves me
," this doesn't actually make things better. Feeling at one with other people and animals doesn't do anything to help the sick bird that's being eaten alive by predators right now. What matters is whether people are actually motivated to do something about it.
I agree with Brooks that feel-good emotions are not sufficient for altruistic action.
Brooks goes on to suggest that moral principles play a bigger role in action:
People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.
Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code.
I think this might be true. Even for myself, I'm more often motivated by a general feeling of "this is the right thing to do" rather than "I feel sorry for this particular suffering worm," although to be honest, for me the two feelings are pretty close to each other.
However, where do these moral principles come from in the first place? For me and probably for a decent fraction of altruists, this strong sense of duty comes from past empathy. Watching a factory-farming video, for example, can change people's lives. The compassion that we feel in a particular instance often doesn't -- and probably shouldn't -- impel short-term action, but it can redirect your life orientation for the long term. If there weren't suffering in the world, I would probably still be playing video games to pass away the days. Empathy is what gives me a purpose in life; without it, I wouldn't care about moral principles in the first place.
Sure, empathy is often not sufficient to provide follow-through without other personality traits (motivation, persistence, intelligence, etc.), but of course that's the case. No single emotion is going to produce effective altruism on its own; you need the combination of several of them. Brooks would probably agree with this, because he acknowledges that promoting empathy does some good; he just points out that it's not enough. That said, I think the tone of the article may lead people to feel as though promoting empathy is valueless rather than recognizing that it's just one ingredient of the recipe.(3) Empathy guides moral principles
Plenty of people do have meaning in life without significant empathy. Where does it come from? Well, some examples are religious devotion and commitment to conservative moral principles (purity, loyalty, respect for authority, etc.) People can be strongly motivated to action by these things as well. But these are mostly bad moral principles.
If we instead promote empathy, we can hook up people's moral-principle brain functions with the cause of reducing suffering. This would make people more liberal, because liberal morality tends to focus mainly or even exclusively on care/harm
, and maybe that's part of why Brooks doesn't seem to like empathy-promotion programs.
In the paper that Brooks cites, Jesse Prinz notes this as well.
Prinz goes on to enumerate some dangers with purely empathy-based morality, which are similar to the concerns I raised against James Doty's statements. For example, empathy can lead people to care more about women and children vs. men, or cute animals vs. ugly ones, or those close to us vs. far away, or those affected by disasters vs. systemic problems. These are all real concerns, and this is why rationality is also essential. Indeed, maybe there would be higher leverage in studying what kinds of brain mechanisms make people utilitarian
in their thinking?Closing words
Promoting empathy is valuable for a decent fraction of the population, not just in terms of achieving short-term altruism but more importantly because it inspires people to care about morality in the first place and inspires them to care about the right sorts of moral principles.
There remains the question: Is promoting empathy the most cost-effective use of our resources? I'm skeptical that it is, and I don't intend to fund it in the near term. One reason is that lots of people care about empathy, but few care about specific issues like wild-animal suffering and sentient simulations, so we might expect more low-hanging fruit from the latter. That said, if compelling empathy interventions appear, I might pursue them, and at the very least, I think it's fascinating to keep an eye on work like what CCARE undertakes. I'm glad someone is doing it.
I also acknowledge that my interest in empathy may be based too much on personal experience. I'd be glad to hear from others: What are the influences that were most responsible for inspiring you toward action to reduce suffering?