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.


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