Hey, did you hear the news about the descolada virus outbreak in Tajikistan?
“No,” you say, “is it bad?”
I confirm that it is bad indeed. 15,000 people have succumbed to the illness, many more cases unconfirmed, doctors are scrambling for a cure. Fortunately, the disease is localized and there’s practically no risk of anyone in this part of the world catching the virus.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” you sigh, “I wish we could do something for the poor souls.”
Your conversational duties fulfilled, you are now free to revert your attention to whatever you were doing before and not give another thought to the poor Tajiks. What was that virus called? You already forgot. It’s not that you’re indifferent to the Tajik plight, it’s just… it’s just that descolada in Tajikistan doesn’t really make a difference to you.
Now imagine instead that you get a call from your doctor: a test came back showing that your appendix is about to get inflamed, you’re scheduled for an appendectomy tomorrow afternoon. Someone’s going to cut open your abdomen with sharp instruments. You really shouldn’t worry though, it’s a routine procedure and most appendectomy patients are out of the hospital by the second day.
But you do worry, and probably have trouble sleeping tonight. It’s unlikely that you’ll be thinking of anything at all for the next day other than your imminent surgery.
Adam Smith is most known for his Wealth of Nations being quoted out of context in 57% of dumb Facebook debates about economics. But that’s only half of his bibliography, Smith also wrote a remarkable book on virtue, wisdom and the life worth living in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. If you want the same ideas in modern English and with a snazzy cover, Russ Roberts of EconTalk fame covers TToMS in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.
The original, published in 1759, remarks on the fact that people are more preoccupied with the smallest inconvenience to themselves than with the greatest tragedies occurring half the world away:
If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.
People are self-interested, is that all Adam Smith want to tell us?
Back to your looming appendectomy. Your phone suddenly rings, it’s the famous Dr. Wiggin. He can drop by tomorrow with a marvelous new pill he developed, it will placate your appendix forever with no need for surgery and no discomfort. Of course, if he comes to visit you he won’t be able to make his trip to Tajikistan where he was planning to administer the descolada cure that only he is in possession of. Will you sacrifice the suffering Tajiks to avoid an unpleasant surgery?
Adam Smith thinks that not a single person on Earth will make that trade-off:
To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it.
But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others?
Smith credits our selflessness to pity, compassion and sympathy; he combines all three under the category of “fellow-feeling”. Today we would more specifically refer to it as empathy, the capacity to share the feelings of others, particularly their sorrow.
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it…
As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.
Pity and compassion are words appropriated to signify our fellow-feeling with the sorrow of others. Sympathy, though its meaning was, perhaps, originally the same, may now, however, without much impropriety, be made use of to denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever.
250 years later, most people agree that empathy is at the root of altruism. Barack Obama sees empathy as the opposite of selfishness:
There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us.
Not only that – we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.
Psychologists researching altruism and morality agree with the president, and break empathy into two components:
The ability to respond with emotional and cognitive empathy is necessary for attachment and caregiving, a fundamental mammalian behavior and cornerstone of altruism.
Roughly, emotional empathy is feeling with the suffering of others, cognitive empathy is feeling for others’ pain without mirroring it. Here are two more psychology researchers, explaining that both are equally critical:
The cognitive and affective components of empathy cannot be cleanly separated.
Indeed, an emerging body of research finds that neural systems for affective and cognitive empathy heavily influence each other. In our work, for example, we have shown that the brain systems involved in affective empathy correlate with those at work in a pro-social decision-making task. The cognitive, in short, is not sealed off from the affective.
Breaking news! Scientists say that emotional empathy makes you a good person! Next they will publish a paper on the discovery that water is wet. Isn’t the value of empathy plainly obvious, even to psychologists?
Well, it’s not obvious to Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. In fact, the latter two excerpts are from written responses to his essay that he titled: Against Empathy. Why would someone be against the cornerstone of moral sentiment, in contradiction of Adam Smith, Obama and his fellow scientists?
One reason is: he’s got a point.
Let’s define exactly what we’re talking about: emotional empathy refers to the ability and the inclination of humans to feel the emotions that others are feeling. These others may be human or animal, present or distant, real or fictional. To clarify: feeling angry that Cecil the Lion was killed is not emotional empathy, because Cecil is not feeling anger, he’s in lion heaven sharing drinks with Mufasa. However, joining the anger of a Twitter mob is empathy, insofar as your anger reflects the predominant emotion of the crowd. Even if every single Twitterer is feigning their outrage, if you imagine the crowd to be angry and feel angry in response, that is empathy.
So what’s wrong with emotional empathy? The fact that it’s self-serving, biased, tribal, and concerned with what’s immediately adjacent. Conversely, we have the power to do good when we are altruistic, objective, think globally and aid those who are most distant. I’ll argue that emotional empathy is separable from cognitive empathy (to a point), and that we have a moral imperative to do so.
Don’t worry, in the end it will turn out that Adam Smith was right about everything all along.
Let’s go back to the 15,000 sick Tajiks. Was it emotional empathy that made you willing to help them, even at the cost of undergoing surgery yourself? Since blogging is a one-way medium of communication, instead of hearing your reply I’ll have to look at the scientific evidence on emotional empathy instead.
First, emotional empathy is innumerate. People are subject to the identifiable victim effect, willing to give more to a single familiar victim than to many. This is true even if the original victim is included in the many, telling people about additional victims can reduce their willingness to help. Our brains simply cannot share the emotion of more than one or two people at a time, let alone 15,000. If both Stalin and Mother Teresa agree on something then it must be true: innumeracy is a feature (or a bug) of emotional empathy.
Second, emotional empathy is biased. We empathize with the attractive, the famous, and with those who are like us. The Tajiks are certainly none of these things: most of my readers will not be able to name a single one of the 8.2 million citizens of Tajikistan. Few of my readers look like they could be from Tajikistan, and we empathize more with those who look like us. Emotional empathy is racist.
Third, empathy is founded on shared experiences. The descolada virus unglues the victim’s DNA and scrambles the proteins, preventing cell repair. Do you know what that feels like? I’d be quite shocked if you do, given that the disease is entirely fictional.
Descolada in Tajikistan is a made up example, but it’s illustrative of the insignificant role emotional empathy really plays in our response to tragedies that befall others. There isn’t a lot more empathy to be found in real life disasters.
One of the best known researchers of the psychology of empathy is Simon Baron-Cohen (not to be confused with famous researcher of American cultural learnings Sasha Baron Cohen). In his reply to Paul Bloom, this is the best example of empathy-driven altruism he managed to come up with:
When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, for example, charitable donations flooded in from countries from around the world, fuelled by empathy for victims, not based on how attractive they were, and not just for those from the same ethnic or national groups.
Talking about donations “flooding” the tsunami victims is not just an unfortunate choice of words, it’s also grossly inaccurate. Reacting to the worst natural disaster in decades “other ethnic or national groups”, both public and private, contributed a tiny amount compared to what they spend on themselves. There’s scant evidence that the little that was given was driven by emotional empathy. The US government originally pledged a measly $15 million. A week later, this amount was increased to $350 and finally $950. Did the increase happen because president Bush spent a week imagining how it feels like to be swept away by giant waves? I bet it’s because he spent a week facing harsh criticism from other world leader on his “stinginess”.
If not emotional empathy for the victims, what drives our responses, such as they are, to the suffering of others? Instead of psychology, we can ask economists: I think that both Adam Smith and Robin Hanson will say that our responses are driven by something like a culturally learned sense of propriety.
You know, without thinking about it explicitly, that tying underwear around your head to keep your ears warm is improper. You may still choose to do it, but you’re aware that it’s transgressive. You know that “four delicious tiny round brown glazed Italian chocolate cookies” is the only proper way to order these adjectives.
The society you live in taught you to feel bad for the tsunami victims and maybe donate a few dollars, but it doesn’t expect you to give your life’s savings to the Red Cross. Yet with your appendectomy weighed against a thousand Tajiks, you know that letting a thousand people die for the sake of your own comfort is improper, and that sense of propriety is strong enough to override every person’s natural selfish inclinations.
As for empathy, it doesn’t override your selfish inclinations, it is one. At least by the evolutionary definitions of selfishness.
The desire for our emotions to be in harmony with those around us has been bred into us by eons of evolution in small tribes. When the difference between life and death every day is the ability to trust, predict and depend on the few members of your hunter-gatherer band, the skill of harmonizing emotions with them is indispensable. I was going to quote an evolutionary psychologist here, but I’ll go with Adam Smith again simply because his writing is delightful:
The person [who suffers] is sensible of this [that others don’t share his full experience], and at the same time passionately desires a more complete sympathy. He longs for that relief which nothing can afford him but the entire concord of the affections of the spectators with his own. To see the emotions of their hearts, in every respect, beat time to his own, in the violent and disagreeable passions, constitutes his sole consolation.
But he can only hope to obtain this by lowering his passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with him. He must flatten, if I may be allowed to say so, the sharpness of its natural tone, in order to reduce it to harmony and concord with the emotions of those who are about him.
Even when we grieve, we will “tone down” our grief, whatever it takes to be in sync with how those around us feel.
People differ in their capability for emotional empathy. Perhaps not surprisingly, Paul Bloom admitted on Julia Galef’s podcast that he doesn’t feel emotional empathy as strongly as others (or as strongly as others claim to, reminds the little Robin Hanson on my shoulder). From hearing a dozen people weigh in on the empathy debate it seems that one’s capacity for emotional empathy correlates strongly with one’s inclination to defend empathy on moral grounds. For what it’s worth, I’m in Paul Bloom’s boat.
I have several female friends. The upshot of this is that I hear a lot of complaints about painful menstrual cramps. I lack both the emotional capacity and the necessary anatomy to properly empathize with my friend’s pain. What I feel instead is a sense of “the world is wrong” and a compulsion to make it better. I can help my friend by inviting her for ice cream, or sending her links to mystical artifacts of great power, or by hanging around and letting her empathy improve her mood by aligning with my generally upbeat emotional baseline.
Is that more valuable to my friend than “to see the emotions of my heart beat time to her own”? Perhaps it is and perhaps not, I will not argue against the importance of empathy in personal relationship. However, I get the same “world is wrong and I should help” feeling when I read about Kenyans suffering in poverty, and I am moved to research their plight and raise donations on my blog. I doubt that if instead I fully empathized with being a hungry subsistence farmer I would have done more for them than $8,000. When a man can’t afford food, I bet he desires food money more than “a complete sympathy”.
And yet, I love the feeling of emotional empathy. I enjoy losing myself in a work of fiction that makes me share every tilt and shift of the protagonist’s passions. I wrote about staring into the eyes of someone experiencing strong emotions, it’s a breathtaking and wonderful experience. I go to live sports events whenever I can for the exhilaration of knowing I share every emotion with 20,000 fans around me.
But I don’t fool myself: empathy feels good because it’s good for me, it has little to do with doing good and making the world better.
In the best part of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life Russ Roberts addresses the seeming paradox of Smith’s career: his life was dedicated to the writing of two books, yet the books have seemingly nothing to do with each other.
In Wealth of Nations Smith talks about societies becoming prosperous through trade and specialization. When two people can trade with each other, each is incentivized to focus on what they do best and barter for what they cannot produce. The more people specialize, the more wealth they create, the more they seek trading partners, the more they need to specialize, and so on and so on until our species went from roaming a patch of savanna to roaming the solar system.
Our wealth is generated by countless strangers – even a simple pencil is delivered by an immensely complex, globe-spanning supply chain. These pencil-making strangers have no concern for us, they are operating solely from their own self-interest. Yet they are responsible for everything from the food we eat to the blogs we read. (Little known fact: Putanumonit is produced in a sweatshop outside Kuala Lumpur by middle-school dropouts).
In contrast, the endlessly quotable Theory of Moral Sentiments makes no mention of trade and commerce, except to remark that the pursuit of riches leads neither to virtue nor to happiness. But when considered as a whole body of work, it becomes clear that the two books aren’t contradictory: they are complementary. Our happiness depends on our relationships with those closest to us, and our character is measured by how we treat them. In these relationships, empathy is paramount. On the other hand, the prosperity of our societies lies in the trade we conduct with faraway strangers, an interaction in which empathy plays no role. A person who keeps these worlds separate and navigates both adroitly will be both successful and loved. A person who mixes in one world with the other will find the mixture noxious and combustible.
The governance of a nation clearly belongs to the world of economic interactions between strangers, not to the world of empathy and intimate relationships. In his essay and in podcasts, Paul Bloom gives many examples of the perils and perversities caused by empathy-driven public policy, I won’t elaborate on that. Instead, I’ll consider a more personal question:
Should a person who seeks to make the world a better place follow empathy or discard it?
If you’re reading this blog, you are probably very prosperous by global and historical standards. A single person making minimum wage in the United States is in the top 5% of earners in the world in 2016. For all the fun we make of it, 2016 is the most advanced, peaceful, healthy and rich year in human history so far and there’s no reason to think that 2017 won’t be ever better. You live in the very best of times, in the very best of places. Almost certainly, the people closest to you are also among the luckiest and richest in the history of the world. These are the people you empathize with.
Empathy will push you to aid those like you, but whatever problems those like you face are neither neglected, nor easily tractable, nor particularly acute. Conversely, those who are strangest to you need your help the most: the third-world poor, the factory farmed animals, and the people who are not yet born. Perhaps others who are even farther from us, whom we haven’t thought of in our empathic provinciality. Those you can empathize the least with, you can do the most to help.
People talk about expanding the “circle of empathy”, and it seems to me that the only way to do it is with cognitive empathy. Your heart will not harmonize with faraway strangers, but your mind can learn to include them in your circle of concern.
In conclusion let me say this: emotional empathy is a wonderful human capacity. It expands our emotional universe and makes us enjoy caring for others. So why do I argue against it? Because of a fundamental asymmetry: emotional empathy feels too good, we are ever likelier to overdo it rather than neglect it.
No one can or should turn off their empathy switch completely. Rationality consists of learning about the biases that distort your thinking, and correcting for them little bit by little bit when making important decisions. When choosing a course of action that will make the world a better place, the strength of your empathy for victims is more likely to lead you astray that to lead you truly.
A prehistoric hunter-gatherer couldn’t fathom the mere concept of getting things from strangers. Every morsel she owned was either self-procured or given by a friend or relative with whom she has built trust over years and decades. Once humans let go of the need for personal confidence and familiarity in barter, humanity flourished and grew in power a million times.
With our newfound power we face newfound challenges: from malaria to global warming to spreading freedom and controlling artificial intelligence. Like our economy, these challenges are no longer in the domain of interpersonal relationship. These challenges are global, and the solutions to them must be global, and it is our imperative as the richest and most powerful humans who have ever lived to solved them. And to do that, we need to let go of one more innate and tribal emotion: empathy.