In an article titled “The Baby in the Well: A Case Against Empathy” published in The New Yorker on May 20 and making viral rounds through the social network, Paul Bloom argues that the current trend to study and develop empathy toward a solution for humanities ills creates logistical issues: “Empathy has some unfortunate features — it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it” (Bloom). Bloom seemingly successfully argues in his article that empathy without social consciousness is simply feeling other people’s pain. However his critique of the current progressive trend to call for more empathy sets up a false dialectic between empathy and reason. “But empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future” (Bloom). Rather, empathy will have to work with reason if humanity is to have a future. To treat empathy and reason as a dialectic is indeed to continue to work towards a destructive path. Humans will need all of their faculties if we are to create the life affirming paradigm shift many are hoping to devise. It is through compassion, a great practice that incorporates both empathy and reason, that we will more successfully work together, for each other, and for all planetary life towards not just survival, towards a successful balanced planetary eco-system.
Jeremy Rifkin in his lecture on the evolution of empathy, now a viral RSA video complete with humorous and instructive white board drawings, discusses the scientific and physiological aspects of empathy, and the social implications of further development of the empathic instinct. He sees empathy as the “drive to belong” which facilitates the human wish to create cultural connections. Rifkin states “We show solidarity with our compassion.” This is an important statement in that Rifkin is not calling for empathy in a vacuum, but empathy shaped into compassion. Coupled with a new interest in the scientific and social implications of Empathy Studies, there is a greater call among many thinkers and scientists to teach human compassion. Compassion is an informed and measured experience ¾ developed through emotional literacy ¾ that includes empathy, but also includes personal boundaries, self-control, and a respect for human rights.
I recently had the good fortune to see the Dalai Lama speak at a one day environmental conference. His primary concern is that as a planet we need to begin to develop a greater understanding and valuation of compassion if we are to heal our planetary ills. He stated that we all enter the world needing mother love. In this all humans are alike. Both Rifkin and the Dalai Lama develop the argument that it is possible for humans to begin to see the entire planet as a large extended family. Bloom disagrees, “Rifkin and others have argued, plausibly, that moral progress involves expanding our concern from the family and the tribe to humanity as a whole. Yet it is impossible to empathize with seven billion strangers, or to feel toward someone you’ve never met the degree of concern you feel for a child, a friend, or a lover. Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.” Bloom is calling on a sort of rational moral obligation to value all humanity based on a valuative association of our empathic love for those closest to us, without utilizing empathy. What he is in fact suggesting is exactly Rifkin and indeed the Dalai Lama’s point. By transforming our rational definition of what constitutes valuative humans from tribe or nation, to all of humanity, we acknowledge that we are all equally human, thus in essence we are all of the same family. We then can leverage our empathic understanding of family to practice trained compassion with all of those human beings and indeed everything in the natural world that we define as alive and of value.
That we leverage rule of law based in the rational language of justice does not mitigate the revolutionary development of conceiving of all humans on the planet as worthy to be protected by these legal structures. We are no longer working from animal instinct which sees those proximal beings and creatures within our direct sphere of influence as the only worthy recipients of our empathy. Now the very notion of aliveness makes an entity worthy of compassion. This comes from a focused education that trains our natural empathy to inform new, transformational, definitions of what is of value, which is all things living.
Meanwhile, de-emphasizing empathy does none of us any good. Bloom’s argument that fair and just laws can be achieved without empathy is questionable at first, and falls apart when you dig deeper into his analysis of how this could be possible. He claims multiple times that people without empathy are still able to distinguish right from wrong, though perhaps less motivated to act on it. He fails to realize that the initial conception of right and wrong, as defined by human society, comes from the natural human (many say animal) emotion of empathy, which insists on community building. Rule building, mores, taboos, come from long standing communal agreements which develop in the midst of empathic group dynamics. It is empathy that creates the human connection that insists on some form of moral obligation. Rule of law based on reasonable definitions of right and wrong, and empathy, are not at odds. Simply empathy is one necessary ingredient in a larger whole that includes reason. It is not as Bloom states “Empathy betrays us only when we take it as a moral guide.” It is that empathy betrays us when we take it as a logistical guide. Morals without empathy are how we create such grand institutions as the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials.
Empathy is not a random emotional allegiance that substitutes logic, it is an emotional connection that augments caring for another, and a sense of community, towards health and well-being, that is then leveraged to make rational choices towards the greater good. Teaching empathy may not produce logical spending and rational humanitarian laws, but it does take people out of themselves and present a connection to the larger human family that actually transforms towards a collective caring. On its own it is an emotional state that is a-political, but it does lean towards human connection, which is a very important emotional piece within most humanitarian endeavors including the Dalai Lama’s current striving to market compassion to the planet. Rifkin states, “Empathy is grounded in the acknowledgment of death and the celebration of life and rooting for each other to flourish and be. It’s based on our frailties and imperfections. So, when we talk about building an empathic civilization we’re not talking about utopia. We’re talking about the ability of human beings to show solidarity not only with each other, but with our fellow creatures, who have a one and only life on this little planet.” If we begin to understand that what we are describing under the guise of empathy is actually the more structured concept of compassion as taught in many eastern traditions, the necessary coupling of empathy with reason will become clearer and the path to the type of education the Dalai Lama suggests, training in compassion, will gain greater advocacy, which will benefit us all, and perhaps sooth Paul Bloom’s fears.