Oh-oh. Maybe Feeling Your Pain Won’t Help Me Help You

In today’s New York Times, the ever-iconoclastic David Brooks weighs in on empathy. In “The Limits of Empathy,” Brooks has the gall to suggest that maybe empathy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Brooks acknowledges that empathy can be a good thing in a limited way. But “the empathy craze” falsely assumes that feelings of empathy for others will lead us to moral action:

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 particular, empathy is not able to overturn self-interest:

Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. 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.

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 what does help us to act morally, if not empathy?

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. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them. The code tells them that an adulterer or a drug dealer may feel ecstatic, but the proper response is still contempt.

When I was a boy, I loved secret codes. I loved using my Cracker Jacks decoder ring to discover the meaning of the codes. But, unbeknownst to me, as I was playing around with secret codes, I was learning sacred codes: in my family, my community, and my church. These codes were reinforced by Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best, not to mention the Bible stories I learned in Sunday School.

What are today’s sacred codes? Are there sacred codes at all? What makes them sacred? How are they being passed on?


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