On June 6th, The New York Times published a column, “Imagining the Lives of Others,” by Paul Bloom, in their “The Stone” series. It was another “Stone” piece that simply wasn’t careful enough with important distinctions, thereby making it sound as if something new and different was being offered. This time the goal was to undermine what the author calls empathy, seeing things as others see them, in favor of an “an objective and fair morality.”
Here’s a comment that I wrote in response. Clearly too long for the comments section in the Times. And there is a lot more to be said. Readers of UP@NIGHT can take it as a kind of promissory note. More on these topics in the weeks ahead.
The author has an agenda, and I can take enough of his perspective to know what it is: he wants to emphasize the importance of “cultivating the ability to step back and apply an objective and fair morality.” I can read his mind about his position…so to speak. I can also say that he is presenting us with a straw man when he says, “empathic engagement is far too fragile a foundation to ground public policy.” Do you know anyone who would say that we should ground public policy on empathic engagement, as opposed to using it to inform our public policies in order to help make them more humane? And Bloom offers more than one straw man. Because we can’t fully appreciate what it’s like to fight in a war if we haven’t been in one, this somehow counts against everyday empathy or sympathy as potential motivators. (I suppose all of the charitable organizations that appeal for assistance when a disaster happens, using viscerally charged images, have got it wrong.)
It would take an article to begin to unpack some of the errors in this column. The author runs together, implicitly or explicitly, several different kinds of interpersonal capacities and interactions: empathy, sympathy, perspective-taking, mind-reading, etc. These are not necessarily the same things and shouldn’t be lumped together. Feeling someone’s pain–not literally, but using your own experience to get in touch with what an other is experiencing–is not the same thing as figuring out what someone is trying to say or do. For example, I couldn’t speak to another person if I were not able anticipate, to some degree, what he or she was going to say in response. We couldn’t play the roles that we play on a daily basis if we didn’t have some capacity to figure out what the other guy is going to say or do, to step into his or her shoes. These can be seen as forms of perspective-taking, seeing things as others do, that don’t necessarily involve sympathy or even empathy.
Further, the examples Bloom uses are almost bound to reveal (misleadingly) the limitations of “empathy”: speed daters, job candidates, and people who are being lied to. In the first two cases, we are sufficiently self-interested to fool ourselves pretty easily about what the other person “believes,” especially if we are young. Regarding whether people are lying to us: the point of lying is to trick someone into not figuring out that you are lying. (Of course, some of us have more skill and experience than others at this game.) This is hardly the best test of “empathy” or even “mind-reading.”
It’s become common for those interested in ethics to draw on studies from the social sciences, and then report on them in the press. Two requests: 1) they be more careful in generalizing from very limited studies, and 2) they carefully clarify just what the subject under investigation involves, trying to avoid conflating different, although possibly related, phenomena.