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Going Beyond Empathy


Empathy - let’s Google it real quick - “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”


The moral market is bullish on empathy in our generation.


There’s some good reason for this. Adept moral decision making requires that one have a keen sense of the various goods and bads involved in a situation - and empathy sharpens this sense. For example, one might have some ideas about what policy could address the problem of homelessness, but not be truly acquainted with just how bad the what-it’s-like is of being homeless. Lacking such empathy might lead one to make less drastic efforts to solve the problem, given that the problem is not seen in its true colors.


And still, controversial opinion incoming, empathy is a very poor guide for decision making.


Yet, we do it all the time.


Consider the act of giving cash to beggars. By the above definition, a well-toned empathy muscle would afford you the ability to genuinely understand how humiliating, scary, and depressing it must feel to participate in begging. Let’s also say you want to do something kind for the person. What would empathy have you do? Any ideas?


Did you hear crickets? Or have a multitude of ideas?


Herein lies the problem. Empathy cannot recommend as best any particular course of action when there are competing options. In this case, you have the choice to either give or not give, and in various ways. Understanding the feelings of the beggar doesn’t give you the requisite information required to make an informed moral choice about how to express a kindness to the beggar monetarily.


See, empathy plays an important role in morality, but it has a devilish way of disguising itself as the only load-bearing structural beam in our ethics.


Our generation insists that if people only had more empathy the world would be better. I disagree - empathy is great, when it is coupled with strong information about what will likely bring about the good.

Here’s a typical self-proclaimed empathy-based reasoning process:


Empathic Sentiment - “I feel so bad for them, it must feel really bad to be so hungry and have no money for food.”


Well-Being Fact - “It is good that they have food to eat.”


Moral Claim - “I have extra money, I should give it to them, so that they could buy food, and their situation would improve, if only a little bit.”


Course of Action - “Therefore, I will give them money.”

People think something like this all the time and end up giving cash to beggars. I’ve done it a number of times. But to drive the point home, let’s see how the very same first sentence, the empathic sentiment, might generate an entirely different course of action.


Empathic Sentiment - “I feel so bad for them, it must feel really bad to be so hungry and have no money for food.”


Well-Being Fact - “It is good that they have food to eat.”


Moral Claim - “I have extra money, I should give it to an organization that helps homeless people in my county, they are experts on helping this community and know what they need more than I do.”


Course of Action - “Therefore, I will give my money to the organization.”


I do not need to weigh in here about which above course of action is the right one - that’s beside the point, albeit an interesting topic.


The empathy is the same, the fact about well-being is the same, but the moral claims are different and as such lead to different actions. See, it is really the moral claim that is doing the heavy lifting in the moral decision-making - not the empathy. Empathy motivated both courses of action, but wasn’t decisive in generating the action - instead, the decisive force was the philosophical/ethical/data-driven considerations baked into the moral claim.


Empathy can mislead us when we don’t recognize that philosophical and moral software is running in the background and is a huge driver of action.


Our job, then, is to identify those moral principles and fact claims and assess them on their merits.


Perhaps equally importantly, understanding this shortcoming of empathy can actually lead us to developing our own intellectual virtue of poise. We don’t need to fault our policy opponents or those we disagree with as lacking the character trait of empathy, which always feels like an insulting personal attack. Rather we can focus on what is really the driver of decision making - what we believe to be fact, our philosophy, and our ethical principles.


Another topic that can sometimes be fraught with empathic confusion is organ donation. “There are lots of people waiting for organs. You must feel absolutely helpless and afraid if you are in need of an organ and there is a shortage of supply. We should change the laws so that we can increase the supply of organs!”


Well, not so fast. What are the unintended consequences of changing the law? Will it really lead to more supply? How much and at what cost?


We talk all about organ donation and the various suggestions to increase national supply in this week’s episode “Getting More Organs”. You can watch on Youtube or listen on your favorite podcatcher.


We’d love to hear from you - write in to the show and let us know what you’re thinking about.


Stay Curious!