Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Strange Persistence of Empathy

The great painter Salvador Dalì was capable of feeling empathy with inanimate objects such as pocket watches; this did not impede his success as an artist, but sometimes made him a difficult person to be around.

In a brilliant essay in the Boston Review, the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom once argued that the benefits of empathy were greatly exaggerated.  After all, women are commonly said to experience empathy more readily than men, and yet they are also twice as likely as men to experience depression. As Barbara Oakley writes, “It's surprising how many diseases and syndromes commonly seen in women seem to be related to women's generally stronger empathy with and focus on others.”

Some degree of empathy is probably built in to the brain. Babies feel uncomfortable when they see people suffering, and often try to help those in distress, patting them and making soothing gestures, as do chimpanzees. Even the economist Adam Smith found that the sight of a beggar's sores and ulcers made him feel itchy or queasy in the corresponding part of his own body, and novelist John Updike reported a similar experience.

Nevertheless, it is unwise to let empathy play too much of a role in the making of public policy.

Policy makers who do this tend to be biased in favor of the people they feel most empathic towards. They will give preference to those they find attractive, or the ones who look like them or share an ethnic background. They may insist on framing programs for homeless street people instead of white men without college degrees. They might focus their attention on cute polar bears when the not so adorable energy industry is in crisis.

In the same way, these planners probably take too narrow a view. They see the needs of the individual and usually ignore numerical differences and statistical data. Even Mother Teresa, for all her amazing work, was often guilty of this.

The young Trump administration provides an example of the folly of getting carried away by empathy. During the campaign, candidate Trump showed an uncanny ability to enter into the feelings of the voters and desire the things they desired. If they longed for a wall over the Rio Grande paid for by Mexican taxes, so did he. If they were mad at China he was too.

But as Dwight Eisenhower always said, you campaign in poetry but you govern in drama. Now that he is president, the limitations of his approach are becoming clear. His health care plan, to give everyone in America much cheaper and better health care than Obama did, had to give way to the statistical reality that a majority of members of Congress either didn't think it would do that, or didn't want to do it if it would. And now he will be forced to have President Xi over for dinner at Mar-a-Lago.

Hence, Bloom recommends a “non-empathetic compassion—a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others. Such compassion is a psychological plus. Putting aside the obvious point that some degree of caring for others is morally right, kindness and altruism are associated with all sorts of positive physical and psychological outcomes, including a boost in both short-term mood and long-term happiness. If you want to get happy, helping others is an excellent way to do so.”

I'd add that if we really want others to be happy we should see that they practice compassion too. Rather than forcing them into victimhood situations like public housing and free medical care, we should look for policies that encourage people to be giving and unselfish in their own personal relationships, by inviting them to practice traditional rituals, enter into marriages of deep commitment, and take on fulfilling jobs like missionary, medical internist, and recreational director.

We'll probably need to have a new culture, as well, one that is not just realistic but surrealistic. We should have new rituals, expressing not empathy but fidelity to our national goals. We want a new moral discourse, with more verbs and fewer adverbs. We need a new sense of purpose, with more rhetorical uplift. We need a more exciting atmosphere than Oh Jesus it's cocktail time and I've still only got 700 words.

America's founders came to this country to practice the religion of their choice and to build a shining city on a hill, which at least we have Denver, is that close? And San Francisco is on several hills. We need to build a society with longer perorations, in which no child has to go to bed wondering whether there's somebody making a speech somewhere or recording a TED talk or showing up on PBS making wry self-deprecatory commentary.

We need to build a society that roars to a climax like the steam engines our forefathers created, at a time when more people went to church and joined voluntary organizations, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed. We need to wait till the sun shines, Nelly, and the clouds go drifting by! Then

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