How much should you trust your empathy?

How much should you trust your empathy? June 19, 2013
There are too many people in this crowd to empathize with

Recently, in The New Yorker, psychologist Paul Bloom took a shot at the idea that empathy is a necessary component of moral judgement or behavior.  In fact, the stirrings of our conscience, he says, can often lead us astray.  We tend to be more moved by the small problems near us than big problems far away.  It’s hard to fire off mirror neurons if other people’s norms and culture are different enough from yours that you can’t read their expressions or anticipate their reactions.  And we tend not have a small-c catholic approach to empathy — we feel kinship with the victim, but not the mugger.  Thus, Bloom concludes, “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.”

So Bloom would be unlikely to recommend that you increase your sensitivity to empathetic feelings (perhaps by taking oxcytocin).  Bloom thinks instead that we might do better to just use empathy as a goad to be a little more abstract and deliberate.  We can trust empathy to remind us we’d like to treat other people well, but we need a different system to tell us how.  He sees promising evidence for this approach.

A race of psychopaths might well be smart enough to invent the principles of solidarity and fairness. (Research suggests that criminal psychopaths are adept at making moral judgments.) The problem with those who are devoid of empathy is that, although they may recognize what’s right, they have no motivation to act upon it. Some spark of fellow-feeling is needed to convert intelligence into action.

But a spark may be all that’s needed. Putting aside the extremes of psychopathy, there is no evidence to suggest that the less empathetic are morally worse than the rest of us. Simon Baron-Cohen observes that some people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, though typically empathy-deficient, are highly moral, owing to a strong desire to follow rules and insure that they are applied fairly.

But, as someone who’s a lot closer to the model that Bloom praises, I have my doubts about his approach.  I agree that we’re bad at doing the math to understand the impact of our actions and choices, and, in fact, it’s painful to double check that we’re actually helping — we might reveal we’re not!  But Bloom doesn’t spend much time talking about the problem of coming to morality through a passionate love of rules rather than people.

A desire to follow rules and ensure fairness might lead lead you toward agape, but it might just as well lead you to a Javert-like system that is fair — it is merciless to everyone.  Even a Kafka-esque arrangement is fair insofar as it is universal.  There are too many  well-organized systems of rules to trust ourselves to light on a good one without something more than consistency to recommend it.  I agree with Bloom’s first sentence in the below:

Empathy is what makes us human; it’s what makes us both subjects and objects of moral concern. Empathy betrays us only when we take it as a moral guide.

But using anything else as a moral guide leaves us insensitive to the fact that we’re looking for an ethical way to treat humans, people whose capacities and shortcomings are accessibly and understandable to us, because we share them.  So, how can we act effectively in the very large world without losing touch with the foundation of our ethical intuitions?

Instead of fixing humans, who are complicated and kludgy, we can always try altering our environment, instead.  Given my shortness of breath, I wouldn’t live in a twelve-story walk-up.  Given my scope-insensitivity, I shouldn’t put myself in a position where I make large-scale decisions casually, using heuristics tailored to small groups.  Instead, I might follow the principle of subsidiarity, where all choices are made at the lowest possible level, closest to the scale where we can see the people we’re serving, and react to them, not abstractions or the nearest available analogue.

If small-scale interactions are the norm,  large-scale interventions feel peculiar, and it’s a bit more natural to reach for some deliberate debiasing practice, instead of relying on habit.  Before taking action at the scale where your empathy can’t do the math, you might consult a dictionary of numbers, to make the stakes a little more visceral.  Or you might do a writing exercise where you try to write a story with your enemy as protagonist or pass an Ideological Turing Test from his point of view, since you know you’re worse at agape when you’re angry.  You might set up some of your charitable donation to just be automatically deducted and sent to GiveWell, since you know you can’t trust yourself to be reminded about the need for malaria nets in day to day life.

Empathy is what makes the pain of others vividly, unavoidably present to us.  Not all suffering manages to trip the circuit, but I can still make good use of it if I look for more ways to trigger it and, in the meantime, avoid putting myself in a position to sin against others through negligence.  I’d prefer that to trying to switch my conscience over wholesale to a more distant approach, where I receive more feedback from my inner-moral-Scantron grader and less from other people.

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  • TheodoreSeeber

    I resemble Simon Baron-Cohen’s remark (someday, I’ve GOT to research the researcher’s family tree for the origin of that intriguing hyphenated last name! English Aristocrat marries Jew!). And I’ve done quite a lot of work on this aspect of my character in the last decade.

    Yes, replacing empathy with compassion and a rule set can lead both to agape and authoritarian tendencies. The key is to pick a rule set that is designed for agape. And for once, I’m not going to insist that Catholicism is the only one out there. Postmodern Emergence Christianity seems to have almost as great an emphasis on Agape, though the inherent chaos of the system would drive me crazy. I came really close to following the Zen Buddhism of the Sixth Patriarch and adopting the Platform Sutra as my scriptures- that would be the Chaotic Good side of my brain. Catholicism is of course the Lawful Good side of my brain. And it is best considered as a sect of Judaism in these terms, so that’s equally good.

    I hate to admit it, but recent events and a study of even the most peaceful branches of Islam lead me to believe that religion to be chaotic evil. And atheism is very chaotic neutral to me.

    Ok, I’ve got to stop reading your blog for a while. You’ve got me thinking in D&D terms again, which I thought I had banished from my vocabulary two decades ago.

  • Cminor

    So…be gentle as doves, but wise as serpents?

  • Randy Gritter

    I do think we need both. That is why God gave us people who have a strong sense of rules and fairness and also those who have strong empathy. It reminds me of some Myers-Briggs categories I forget. Empathy can lead us to the squeaky wheel type of morality. We can be responsive to hurts that are expressed and ignore those who suffer in silence. Then people figure out that whining works and they learn to behave that way.

    At some point you need rules. A lot of it depends on scale. If you know the people involved very well then you can judge whether they are really hurt or just being manipulative. If the number of people is larger and you can’t really tell then you are better off following simple rules. You still need to be open to making exceptions.

    I tend to be a rules guy and my wife tends to push me towards empathy from time to time. Many marriages seem to work that way. We need both. We need to live with our heart and our head. We cannot choose one and ignore the other.

  • I wrote a paper once on the problem with empathy, and I read a book that gathered together a lot of discussion about the limits of empathy. I wish I could remember all of them! Personally speaking, one of the major problems seems to be that we’re very good at empathizing with those like us, but not like those unlike us. It’s not just across cultures that we encounter problems; we have trouble empathizing across psychologies, and we rarely know how much we fail. It took me such a long time to realize that I was projecting my own idiosyncrasies onto others in the name of empathy.
    I do think that empathy is a very good thing to practise, but only if we recall that it should be a well-reflected practise, not just a reflex, and that it is not nearly sufficient for ethical action.

  • Joe

    “Not all suffering manages to trip the circuit, but I can still make good use of it if I look for more ways to trigger it….” How does one cultivate impulses of empathy?

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    I don’t trust my empathy, mainly because I haven’t any. I need rules of interaction, otherwise I would be rude, selfish and unbearable in the limited interactions with real people that I have to have.
    On the other hand, I have been telling the truth in recent job interviews and it has been wonderfully refreshing. You know the advice you get from careers guidance counsellors in school onwards to sell yourself, to say for every job you apply for that this is the dream you always wanted and you could never be happy working anywhere else?
    Bollocks (excuse my Klatchian). Like some of you, I’ve been going on interviews that I’ve been sent to by the employment agency just because I’ve had to, and instead of dredging up some kind of “Well, my qualifications/experience would sort of fit in here if I hit them with a lump hammer hard enough” spiel, I’ve told the interviewers that I had no interest in/relevant skillset for the position.
    It may not have helped me get a job, but it feels absolutely marvellous to finally cut out all the bullshit.

  • Y. A. Warren

    We can cultivate empathy by looking people directly in the eye, face-to-face. Even many with Asperger’s can be taught what different looks and tones of voice mean. This takes commitment to the relationship and time to pay close individual attention. Religions are to bond people in sets of behavioral rules. Many without empathy will follow rules in order to continue belonging to their “tribe.” The biggest problem I see with religions is that too many people have the “Do as I say, not as I do.” approach, or the “It isn’t wrong if you don’t get caught.” approach. Both destroy community bonds.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      Directly in the eye? Do you KNOW anybody with Asperger’s?

      I used to have real problems back in the 1980s recognizing female friends after a haircut.

      • LeahLibresco

        When one of my friends takes off her glasses and removes her bandanna, I always get confused about the stranger who just joined us.

      • Y. A. Warren

        Yes. My husband and a granddaughter. They can be taught to look people in the eye, even though this is very uncomfortable for them.

        • TheodoreSeeber

          I substitute foreheads. Slightly less information, and with my prescription dark glasses, the neurotypicals can’t tell anyway.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I think that’s sort of missing the point. They can’t connect unless they can see your eyes and you teach them how to read emotions. Compassion has to go both ways to work well.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            From what I’ve experienced with neurotypicals, compassion isn’t their strong point and empathy isn’t exactly a replacement.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I was probably using the terms interchangeably, so I looked up the actual differences in the terms. Empathy (feeling WITH another) is what Asperger’s people lack, but the can be taught compassion (feeling FOR a person.)

          • If you’re up for it, try the point between their eyes. It looks like you’re really interested in what they have to say.
            (I don’t have Asperger’s–OK, I don’t think I have Asperger’s–but I do really really hate eye contact. So I understand somewhat. And to Y. A.: you can be very empathetic without eye contact. It isn’t as obvious, though.

  • turmarion

    You mention Javert–interestingly, it’s been suggested that Robespierre was an Aspy. We know how that turned out….

    I am about four points shy of an Asperger’s diagnosis on the Baron Cohen inventory, and I kind of second Leah that Bloom might be selling empathy short, for similar reasons.

    • Randy Gritter

      Interesting. I had not heard of the test. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s by some family members. I took the test. I got 38. I didn’t know Asperger’s was getting so much buzz. It came up at another forum I comment on as well. There they said it is also called engineer’s brain. I like that name better. A syndrome sound like a mental defect. Engineer’s brain sounds more like a personality type.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        I was formally diagnosed 13 years ago. I score the same as you, a 38.

    • LeahLibresco

      I took the version of the test here: and got EQ: 15, SQ: 44, which is nearly the same as what I got when I took it in high school

      • TheodoreSeeber

        This system is more involved. My EQ is 10, my SQ is 63. My Meyers Briggs Personality Profile is INFP and my CARS score, as I said before, is 38.

      • Randy Gritter

        My SQ was actually quite low. That surprises me because I get paid a lot for analyzing computer systems. I am pretty good at it. I guess all those questions about organizing your personal life and hobbies went into it. I am disorganized. I don’t need to systematize everything. But when I do I can be very good at it.

        My EQ was a 9. Not sure about that either. It should be low but on a lot of those questions I saw myself as weak but not nearly as weak as I was 25 years ago. Still the answers remained on the same side.

        • I agree with your complaint about SQ. I scored a little lower than I think I should have as well (though I won’t pretend I should have been Leah-levels or anything). The problem might be that aptitude may not always correlate with interest. I like and am good at learning taxonomies, mathy board game rules (I design my own tabletop rpg systems and I don’t even play tabletop rpgs), and formal conceptual systems. But I have little or no interest in machinery, sports, or economics, which is what all of the questions were about. I don’t have an interest in those systems because I don’t have any interest in what those systems represent.

        • Verbose Stoic

          My SQ was 13 and EQ was 12. The latter wasn’t surprising, but every other test insists that I’m analytic, and I’ve proven time and time again that I can indeed break down and analyze things in intense detail and better than most people. I agree that the issue here is that too many of those questions were about what you want to do, and I don’t have much interest in breaking things down as a hobby in and of itself; it’s something I just DO when doing other things, not something that I do for its own sake.

      • turmarion

        I just now took the test you linked to. My SQ was 28, which is about the same as the last time–four points short of 32, which is the threshold for clinically significant results. Thus, I’m on the fringes of the spectrum. My EQ (which I don’t recall having done previously) was 33, on the border between low and average. I’m an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs, and have never taken the CARS.

        I’d nuance that by saying that in my experience I am highly empathetic with loved ones and close friends. Also, as a teacher (definitely a “helping” profession), I try to show empathy to my students. In the latter case, I am consciously aware that it takes concentration and attention, and some days when I get home, I feel exhausted from the effort. In generic public interactions, where it’s not a matter of friends or work, I tend to tune out.

        I don’t know what the research is, but I think I’ve moved. If I’d taken these tests in my teens (I turn 50 next month), I’m sure I’d have scored substantially higher on the SQ and somewhat less on the EQ. It’s been years since I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs, but I suspect that my “J” has moved in the “P” direction.


    Leah, it’s time you wrote a book. Great stuff.