Archive for August, 2010


The Empathic Civilization

This is a very interesting and worthwhile movie in a series of interesting and worthwhile movies.

The subject is empathy and the movie starts out with science about empathy. We have mirror neurons that make us feel what other people are feeling. When someone is in pain, we “feel their pain” or when someone is embarrassed, we often feel it with them.

So, this author argues, we are homo empathicus and are wired to feel in concert with others. The result of this insight is a wide ranging view of culture and society as needing to be organized in order to promote our empathy and to allow it to flourish.

Now, I’m excited about these findings. I think empathy is very important and that usually, it works to make people understand each other better and so helps our societies become stronger and more just. As a philosopher though, I feel like I have to take issue with some of the sweeping optimism made in this presentation.

One thing is that this movie misunderstands the relationship between ethics and empathy. If we are naturally disposed to empathy, that does not show that ethics should be based on empathy or that we should heed our empathic feelings, and this is because ethics is normative, it is about what we should do, not what we are programmed to do. If we think we SHOULD help others, then empathy is a good thing, because we’re more likely to help them when we’re empathic, but whether we should help others is a normative question and must be settled with normative arguments and not biological ones.

A way to see this point is to imagine that humans are all for the most part rapacious and evil.  Would that show that violence is justified or ethically valuable? No. In fact, there are suspicions that parts of us are violent and insensitive to others, but this is to be lamented, not made the basis of an ethical theory. The same is true with empathy. Yay that we have empathy, but THAT we have it is no argument or consideration that we must follow slavishly when we construct a moral world.

Also, I’m very suspicious about claims that pretend to know “human nature.” In human history, humans have been called everything from the social animal, the tool using animal, the political animal, the moral animal, the violent animal, the loving animal, the friendly animal, the spiritual animal. Homo this and homo that. Everyone comes along and tries to reduce human life to an essential fountain from which everything else flows, but it can’t be done. We live with diversity, and as with all things, empathy can work for destruction just as it can work for good. If we’re empathic we may not be able to make hard choices. If I send these soldiers to fight a war, the country will be protected. If I feel their pain, I may not be able to send them to do what, given careful consideration, must be done. We may not be able to punish those that need punishing or discipline those that need disciplining. We run the risk of being too soft (though I admit, that’s a risk that probably isn’t too likely).

And what cultural achievements depend on ignoring what others feel and turning our backs on their sentiments? Pioneers in music, the sciences, religion and philosophy must sometimes confront people with their lives, painful as it may be, and they might have to cut against popular sentiment in order to perfect their craft. And what about sports, where the goal is to dominate and defeat, out of which mutual respect is born. What I mean is that sometimes we show great respect to someone by not feeling their pain, by not coddling them or going along with their sentiments. We feel honored when someone feels like they can speak their mind to us, or even tease us and in fact challenge us. All these things show that they respect our resiliency.

Lastly, there is the obvious point about suffering. If we develop society’s empathy, we risk creating an emotional mess that seethes with pain and flies to rapture whenever something happens. Would it always be a good thing for everyone to feel the pain of everyone else. It seems like that would just make life much more painful. I have enough just in my own life thank you very much without me having to feel everyone else’s pain, especially in situations where I cannot do anything about the difficulties other people face. And a related point, is there anything valuable in not knowing how other people feel and seeing mystery in their relationship to the world? Maybe its better if people can surprise us with what they feel, and if they can come forward about their feelings on their own terms and in their own voice. When we see someone getting hurt and so feel their hurt too, we run the risk of a kind of sollipsism that makes everyone elses feelings into our own. It might be better sometimes to wait patiently until a victim or a hero decides to write a book or paint a picture or just come over to our house and TELL us how they feel rather than have us jumping into their unconscious with the power of our mirror neurons.

Now this is mostly just a rant, and a lot of the arguments here are not good, but at least they are provocative. For my lack of clarity and recklessness, I apologize. Again, to restate: empathy is wonderful and society would no doubt be improved by more of it. But don’t be fooled, it cannot cure everything and maybe not much at all. We are not homo empathicus, but something much more complex. Our moral theories and theories of society should respect that startling diversity.


The first friend syndrome

Here is something I’ve consistently noticed in my life and that has really bugged me for a while. See, whenever I go to a new place or a new job or a new institution, I start to make friends (not always, but usually I can, ha), and almost always, there is one person who I find easy to get along with right from the start. I consider them a likely friend. But inevitably, I drift away from this person and the friendship ends. Sometimes I end up finding these “first-friends” pretty obnoxious.

And this has happened MANY times. At first I thought it was just my own prejudice acting as a self-fulfilling prophecy so that my knowledge of this first-friend rule (that they are ephemeral and destined to disappear) makes me regard the person who I first become friends with more critically over time. I would be defeating myself merely by learning about myself, and it wouldn’t be the first time (a theme on this blog is that sometimes learning more about yourself makes you less able to do things). In the end though, I don’t think this is what’s happening because not only have I found a better explanation, but I approach every new encounter as a possibility to break with this past pattern. I don’t really take this rule into account ex ante, but I always find it holding true ex post.

Like I said, I have a better explanation, and its that when we enter new environments, we are especially sensitive to making friends. We are especially friendly, or worse, we exaggerate the parts of ourselves we think others will like and hide and downplay the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. We also quickly latch on to perceived similarities when they aren’t really there. Someone is from the same state as us, or interested in the same type of books or movies, and though these things are, in the grand scheme of things, not similarities that a friendship can be built on, we take them to be the formula for a buddy. We trick ourselves time and time again (I use “we” but perhaps no one has this ridiculously bizarre problem) only to find out later, in the light of day, that the person was not like us and that the person they found to be friendly was not ourselves but a cardboard cutout of our personality.

As is typical, I think this is an interesting phenomenon for broader reason because it involves the question of whether we have a “real” self or personality. Some postmodern people or smart-alecky college kids (I’ve been both I guess) think that of course there cannot be a true self. We change who we are for each situation and every group of people. And it’s true, we do act very differently depending on whether we’re with parents or friends for example. Is there anything that unites these disparate performances?

I’m not sure, but I tend to think that there something interesting and puzzling going on, because we throw around terms that make distinctions between what we feel comfortable being and what we don’t. I the distinction lies in the fluidity with which we navigate different situations. We are comfortable with friends and parents alike, we can jump into the conversations with ease. We know our privileges and responsibilities in these relationships very simply.

In other moments though we are simulating a little bit. We may be very quick and very fluid with this simulation but there’s an element of deception, and it happens to me when I’m being friendly to someone at a party or someplace and they make the offer to hang out sometime. When I hear that, sometimes I cringe on the inside. I say to myself “I don’t want to hang out with this person,” and that’s when I realize that I’ve been simulating a friendly vibe and that the other person has been taken in by it (might be related to what I said in this post). It makes me feel bad sometimes, but it’s something we can’t really notice, and even if we could, its not clear what we could actually do about it. Is the answer to be less friendly? (see this post)

Anyway, I’m the victim of this all the time, and I know the damage it can do to. For one thing, it makes me more cynical and guarded when I meet new people, both for my sake and theirs.

All this is to say, there’s not shortcut to a friendship. You can’t reveal everything all at once to someone; that’s weird and off-putting, but over time, you can slowly reveal yourself and become more “natural” and hopefully the other person is doing the same.


Sports Rivalries

I was recently at a party where I talked with Terrence Johnson, a young guy who works for the northeastern sports network as a starting reporter.

He was filled with really down to earth wisdom about sports, but my conversation with me (in which I just shut up and listened given my lack of knowledge) left me with this interesting fact.

Sports rivalries are important, especially in college, for reasons of monitoring costs. You see, I always thought that sports rivalries were just the result of poorly directed feelings of frustration or anger on the part of immature college kids. Why don’t we like the school down the way? Who the hell knows. But it turns out that rivalries often spur rivals to monitor each other closely, and that this monitoring often results in disclosures of abuse of NCAA rules regarding player compensation, scholarships, or academic standards.

Since every school probably has at least one rival, the vehement and undirected dislike of a rival school serves to set up an unbribeable and inescapable watchdog. Interesting.


A mixed beer strategy

If you’re planning on doing some drinking, consider getting a six pack of nice beer that you like (if you even care about nicer beers at all) and then a six pack of crappier beer. The reason is efficiency.

You want to try and get the most pleasure for your money, and a mixed beer strategy is better than a pure crappy beer strategy or a pure good beer strategy, and that’s because of the way that alcohol degrades taste buds. It’s important that the first beer be tasty because you’re taste buds are at their best, and so if you paid $10 for the six pack then you know that you can, with your best taste buds, get pleasure that is worth more than $10/6 (per beer price). But as the night progresses, its unlikely that you can keep your happiness per beer above that price. So, as your taste buds decay, you should switch your choice of beverage and save your nicer beer for when you are more sober so that you can enjoy its taste again with the full power of your palate.

This strategy ensures you’re getting the most for your money. As advertised, this is an efficiency matter.


A simple example about socialization

I write a lot on this blog about facebook and the effect of new media on old patterns of socialization are (see here, here, here). Sometimes though reasoning is just a bother and abstractions don’t really speak to us. So, I think I can provide an example that gets at many of my concerns all at once.

I recently met a woman who used to keep a detailed notebook of when people’s birthdays were. She would make sure to call or send a letter to the person when the time rolled around, and she used this as a way to distinguish herself from others who didn’t remember these birthdays. More importantly, she used here memory and attention to detail in a way that allowed her to demonstrate how she valued other people, and her message, as far as I can tell, was quite potent. She was willing to take the time to wish someone well on their birthday.

This was before facebook, and it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t use facebook, because her gesture is lost. Everyone knows birthdays, and respond appropriately (or not). And so one of her skills, her WAY of expressing value to those around her, was denied to her.

This is the sort of thing that troubles me about new media. It seems to destroy our language of value, and EVEN IF, on net, it creates more avenues for social expression than it destroys (which I don’t think it does), it still yanks the rug out from under some people who have, during the course of their path to maturity, created ways of communing with those around them. What should we say to these people?


A telling editorial and some other points

I came across this Washington Post article by Charles Krauthammer.

In it, he makes demonstrates a point I’ve been pressing, and one that I think is important. The key word here is demonstrate; Krauthammer doesn’t really MAKE many points I find convincing, and in many places I think he undermines his own position. But his article is a good EXAMPLE of something I’ve been worrying about, which is the use of rhetorical and argumentative strategies we use in public debates.

In many of my past posts, I’ve discussed the risk that trying to impugn people’s motivations is very dangerous. It puts people on the defensive by making a claim that cannot be easily refuted (only the person knows their motivations), but it can be countered. And so, once motivations are on the table, the debate takes off in a tailspin of accusations and counter accusations (for instance, Krauthammer responds to charges of racism with charges of insincerity and liberal arrogance). Krauthammer here attacks liberals for painting many conservatives as animated by prejudice on a variety of issues, including the mosque issue, the tea party, immigration, and prop 8.

And things get very tricky very quickly, because even though I think it its generally a poisonous and defeatist maneuver to start in with psychological claims about what drives the other side in a debate, its sometimes very necessary, for instance, when real racism or discrimination is at work. For example, Krauthammer talks about proposition 8 and laughs at the idea that homophobia is at work. He writes that the reason conservatives oppose gay marriage is

And that seeing merit in retaining the structure of the most ancient and fundamental of all social institutions is something other than an alleged hatred of gays — particularly since the opposite-gender requirement has characterized virtually every society in all the millennia until just a few years ago?

But that is no argument at all since mere tradition is no argument for anything (there are good and bad traditions, but whether they are good or bad turns on what they are, not whether they are or are not traditional). And so one is wondering, really, what COULD be the argument against gay marriage (or, if we’re libertarians, equality of status, whatever way we decide to sanction two people living together in a special arrangement)? Complexities abound again. Do all people who oppose gay marriage want gays to be worse off? Do they want to harm these people, or are they just gripped by a vague sense that something “isn’t proper” about gay marriage; a nameless psychological blockage to accepting the arguments in its favor? Who knows, but it seems like its at least safe to say (at least I’m comfortable saying), that whether or not people who oppose gay marriage are homophobic, they have no good reason to oppose it.

Again, I’ve said this for the mosque debate as well. Why do we need to say that people who oppose the mosque are homophobic? What does that acc0mplish other than making the debate more difficult. Isn’t it enough to say that they have no good reason to oppose the building of the mosque? Why also anger the other side when all that’s needed is to defeat it.

One last point. Krauthammer think republicans will win big in the midterms, and I think that is very likely, as talk of a double dip recession starts to fill the airwaves (and this is justified because things look bad again). But notice here the wisdom of the founding fathers who STAGGERED elections (2 for house 4 for pres, 6 year terms for senators), so that our government can’t be swept away due to short term difficulties that no party could whether.


Glenn Beck Rally, Cordoba part 2?

I run a modest shop here at the question beggar, and so I was very flattered by the interest that was shown to some of my posts on the Cordoba house/mosque issue.

(*Warning* I use the terms “liberal” and “conservative” in this post pretty broadly. I realize there are differences I’m glossing over, but I’m trying to get out a general point)

Now though, we have an interesting situation in which our democracy has handed us an opportunity to look at the relevance of these arguments in a new situation. There is also the possibility of comparing the right and the left when the issue is about underlying motivations.

There is a story that is growing in strength about the wisdom of Glenn Beck’s planned tea party rally at the Washington Mall on the anniversary of King’s “I have a dream speech.” (a bare bones story is here).

Notice, unlike I think any other media outlet that I’ve seen, how alike this is to the Cordoba issue, mainly because the issue is motivation, which is extremely hard to assess and perhaps invites retaliation in kind, by spawning more attacks and speculation about motivation.

More specifically, people think that Beck is harming MLK’s legacy by having his event on the day of MLK’s speech, and the insult is especially grave given that many in the tea party are supposedly prejudiced (an ongoing squabble on sunday news shows: the degree to which the tea part is racist).

The patten here is so strikingly silly. Conservatives attacked the Cordoba house and were branded prejudiced against Muslims by liberals. Then conservatives fought back by saying that liberals were animated by a desire to provoke the 9/11 families, destroy America. You know, the usual. The Beck event is similar.  Whereas conservatives objected to the Cordoba house’s spatial location, liberals are now objecting to the temporal location of Beck’s rally. They claim that the tea party is tarnishing the memory of MLK with its prejudiced agenda and mostly white set of adherents.

Again, are there racists in the tea party? Yes there are, all you have to do is look at some of the signs that people hold. But the sad fact is that racists are in many parts of our society. And again, liberalism here operates by imputing a motivation to tea partyers, and motivations cannot be refuted like arguments. They are never decidedly put to rest. As far as I can tell, the tea party’s agenda is not racist and I think many people are sincerely concerned about the deficit in this country (see this poll.)

The use of motivation in politics always has silly results and we are seeing it now. Like I said, I think some of the tea partyers might harbor racist motivations, but I think some of the people in the Cordoba house might have a desire to provoke. But who cares. Attacking motivations are a fruitless place to begin an argument and our democracy would be much better off if conservatives had left the Cordoba house alone and liberals left Beck’s rally alone. Misunderstanding is the only result from these kind of skirmishes.

Note: I’m very interested in media bias, which is very hard to discover or show conclusively, but I think this is a WONDERFUL example to look side by side at how similar phenomenon, but from each side of the political spectrum, are looked at by the media. As this develops, there should be some fascinating lessons.