Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.
It’s also become a way of inflicting burdens on others that one does not bear oneself.
People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.
Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them. The code tells them that an adulterer or a drug dealer may feel ecstatic, but the proper response is still contempt.
The obvious problem is that empathy, unstructured by the discipline of ethics, is just self-pity, preying on an attractive live object.
The part Brooks – the author of an evolutionary psychology novel – doesn’t mention is: If everything is controlled by our selfish genes instructing our neurons, predatory self-pity (= undisciplined empathy) is just as meaningless as any other emotion. And where it is the dominant mood, it rules unopposed. The fact is, Brooks cannot get from evolutionary psychology to any place where an ethic is clearly superior to mere predatory self-pity. It ll ends with a clever observation.
Question: How many of Princess Diana’s crowd of half-hysterical mourners thought to carry on her legacy of help for child victims of land mines? Does anyone with a good reason for respecting her think she would not have preferred that to buckets of boo-hoos?
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose