When Sonia Sotomayor noted empathy as a trait in favor of her appointment to the United States Supreme Court, it evoked some concern. Her statement broke from the view espoused by Ruth Bader Ginsburg at her confirmation hearing.
In her speech, Judge Sotomayor questioned the famous notion — often invoked by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her retired Supreme Court colleague, Sandra Day O’Connor — that a wise old man and a wise old woman would reach the same conclusion when deciding cases.
“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life,” said Judge Sotomayor, who is now considered to be near the top of President Obama’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees.
Is empathy, “the capacity to experience the feelings of others, and particularly others’ suffering,” a good thing? It would seem to be obvious, but at Room for Debate, Yale’s Paul Bloom argued that it could produce tragic results.
Empathy acts like a spotlight, focusing one’s attention on a single individual in the here and now. This can have positive effects, but it can also lead to short-sighted and unfair moral actions. And it is subject to bias — both laboratory studies and anecdotal experiences show that empathy flows most for those who look like us, who are attractive and who are non-threatening and familiar.
Notably, the crux of the debate is about how best to be a “good person.”
What guides policy-makers to make wise and moral decisions?
By combining “wise” and “moral,” the issue begins from an untenable assumption, that the two can inherently co-exist. Consider the Trolley Problem. Wisdom provides a clear and obvious answer. Morality creates the problem. And, of course, the problem with morality is that it’s whatever we feel it should be, even if people with obscenely expensive educations want to pretend there is an objective morality that answers all questions.
So feeling their pain is a bad thing?
For those in the helping professions, compassion and understanding are critically important. But not empathy — feeling the suffering of others too acutely leads to exhaustion, burnout and ineffective work. No good therapist is awash with anxiety when working with an anxious patient. Some distance is required.
So detachment is a good thing?
Rationality alone isn’t enough to be a good person; you also need some sort of motivation. But compassion — caring for others without feeling their pain — does the trick quite nicely.
In response, Stanford’s Jamil Zaki stands up for emotion.
For one thing, you are sparring against a straw version of “empathy.” Encountering an upset friend, one might vicariously share his feelings, understand where those feelings come from and wish for him to feel better. All of these experiences are pieces of empathy, but you have thinned out the definition to only include its emotion-sharing component. This is like arguing that European food isn’t delicious, but first defining “European food” strictly as haggis.
Why does he hate haggis? No matter.
You also describe emotions as volatile and irrational. This perspective is dated, harkening back to the Greek notion that people must subdue their passions through reason, like a rider on a wild horse. But in fact people work with, not against, their feelings, turning them up or down to suit their needs. Empathy is no different. Yes, it’s an emotional spotlight, but people have the ability to point this spotlight as they see fit.
If you’re wondering why this post this day, the final day of 2016, this rather leaden debate between academics over haggis, there’s method to the madness, if you can suffer the rhetoric long enough.
[Y]ou’re right that people do dole out empathy lazily — to others who look or think like them — or cynically, to spark aggression. But enshrining pure logic to guide morality is naïve. Even when people try to be objective, they often confirm what they want to believe. In our post-truth world, people can use reason like a shield, curling up in comfortable assumptions, surrounding themselves with others who amplify their biases. If people don’t want to broaden their empathy, they’ll probably use reason narrowly as well.
Putting aside the irony of using the rhetoric of logic in support of the value of emotion, the flaw of the argument is made clear: if people struggle to be objective, the alternative isn’t limited to abandoning reason and devolving to their facile sense of morality, their empathy or their compassion.
There are places in our lives for both empathy and compassion. When caring for a sick friend. When weighing values. When deciding whether to reward or punish your child. But there are also places for logic, for reason. When deciding sound public policy. When deciding legal doctrine. And there are places where both emotion and reason are worthy of consideration in reaching conclusions.
2016 has seen more than its share of emotion. Strong feelings have guided a great many people. Whether for good or bad tends to be based on your personal sense of what’s good and moral, and as shown by outcomes, people can disagree about that, which is why morality is an unhelpful metric.
But where both Zaki and Bloom go wrong is that the goal isn’t to thrive in a “post-truth” world, but to not live in a post-factual (see what I did there?) world at all. Rationalizing choices based on emotion is, despite their effort to dirty it up, easy. Villifying anyone who disagrees with you is easy too. Wrap it up in a bow and you’re right, they’re wrong, End of story. That’s what 2016 gave us, and angry, unhappy, irrational world of raw emotion and false truths. It didn’t work well, even if you got something you ultimately wanted.
For those who like New Years resolutions, here’s one to consider: Think in 2017. Have a Happy New Year.