10 March 2017

What's the matter with empathy?

In an eccentric but welcome change of pace from recent opinionating, Jonah Goldberg almost apologetically contributed a column about the Austrian school of economics and its relation to a recent critique of empathy by the American psychologist Paul Bloom. The Austrians, whose exemplar was Friederich von Hayek, are the economists who argued that planned economies could never function as efficiently as the spontaneous order of free markets because central planners. For Goldberg their virtue is a rationalism he finds preferable to the empathetic romanticism of the so-called German school. While Goldberg seems to overstate the Germans' reliance on empathy -- he also says they were "champions of bathing in statistics and other economic data" -- the specific critique of empathy he borrows from Paul Bloom is an interesting one. As the Germans supposedly were too concerned with discovering the individuality of different cultures as the key to understanding their economies, empathy in general "causes us to focus on a specific injustice or outrage" in a way that "sidelines reason." Bloom prefers "reasoned compassion" to empathy, equating the former with the parents who certainly feel their children's pain but still understand that in some cases "the suffering [can] be for their long term benefit." Returning to the economic or political context, the problem doesn't seem to be empathy itself, since people are going to feel what they're going to feel, but a hedonism that might be described as weaponized empathy. By hedonism I don't mean sensual self-indulgence but an outgrowth -- some might want to call it a decadent form -- of the utilitarianism Bloom reportedly espouses. While utilitarianism aspires to the greatest good for the greatest number, or the good of the whole at the expense of some parts, hedonism aspires to zero tolerance of suffering and thus can be recognized at the heart of 21st century progressive liberalism in the U.S., if not the wider west. Arguably it was the inevitable result of the left's repudiation of Leninism (if not Marxism altogether) and the implicit triumph of a more anarchist strain of leftism, or an anarchist tendency of the old labor movement, for whom the highest goal was an easier life for everyone. This hedonism questions the utility of any suffering (in a civilized world of presumed superabundance) beyond the literal "touch a fire and get burnt" level, and also questions any appeal for sacrifice -- other than monetary sacrifice by the rich, that is -- if not any appeal for deferred gratification. Such appeals are assumed to be someone exploiting you, in the absence of higher causes. It's still a matter of theory whether the sort of anarcho-hedonism I describe is a distinctive element in American though or politics -- that's a subject I'd like to explore more as a historian -- but its existence definitely would explain a lot, and recognizing it might keep empathy from getting a bad name.

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