09 May 2017

'Adolf Hitler was a master of empathy'

Jonah Goldberg's statement may look counterfactual to some readers, but the key to it is what he means by "empathy." In a previous column Goldberg touted Paul Bloom's book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, and the controversy over the talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel's comments about his sick baby has brought Goldberg back to the subject. Kimmel argued from his child's plight that no infant's access to healthcare should be limited by family income or pre-existing conditions. Goldberg, a Republican, judges Kimmel's argument "devoid of any consideration of the facts, trade-offs, or costs of what is the best way to deal with people, including babies, who have pre-existing medical conditions." He claims that Kimmel's appeal to empathy makes it "very difficult to have a rational discussion about the trade-offs inherent to any health-care system." In general, Goldberg believes that "empathy alone is dangerous and can distract us from rational thought and meaningful compassion." That's because, according to Goldberg's paraphrase of Paul Bloom, empathy "is like a drug. It distorts our perspective." Empathy is most dangerous, Bloom and Goldberg agree, when it responds to suffering with anger. That's where Hitler comes in. "The cause of nationalist empathy for the German tribe triggered profound moral blindness for the plight, and even the humanity, of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs," Goldberg writes. Something similar, he argues, has possessed many Sunni Muslims around the world. "Sunni nations empathize with the plight of suffering Sunnis [in Iraq and Syria], and that empathy causes them to further hate and demonize Shiites." The "Black Lives Matter" movement, he continues, is a milder form of the same condition that "blinds [African Americans] to why others respond to the term by saying 'all lives matter.'" All of this is because, contrary to what some may think, or what might make Goldberg's comment about Hitler sound absurd, empathy, as understood by Bloom, is always selective. "Empathy is biased," Bloom writes, "pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism." Goldberg himself thinks that empathy isn't quite that terrible. "It seems to me not only natural but also defensible to give priority to figuratively kindred people," the columnist writes, his example of figurative kinship being the U.S. and Great Britain. Bloom, meanwhile, sees empathy getting in the way of something we might describe as empathy. The inevitable selectivity of empathy as he understands it, blinds people "to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with."

Despite all this, it seems that some people are indiscriminate, either on principle or on impulse, in their empathy with suffering or needy people. The issue Goldberg has with such people -- whether Kimmel counts as one of them is unclear -- is that they don't approach the issues raised by suffering and need with "rational thought and meaningful compassion." Whether Goldberg is a reliable guide to rational thought on any issue is also unclear, but we can probably figure out for ourselves rationally the political issues raised by mass suffering or deprivation. What Goldberg opposes is best described as hedonism, the idea that all suffering is intolerable -- or that your empathy for suffering is unbearable -- and must be minimized if not eliminated from human life. Empathy and hedonism are not synonymous, nor does hedonism follow automatically from an empathetic response to suffering. It doesn't follow from a strong emotional response to suffering that all suffering is unjust. It should be possible for someone to empathize strongly with someone else who isn't making it in life while fully appreciating that his own mistakes may be at least partly responsible for his miserable state. People who've made mistakes themselves that have held them back in any way should empathize all the more strongly with the other person's plight, yet also feel all the more urgently that such people need to learn not to keep making similar mistakes. The intensity of empathy may vary from person to person, but how much has it really to do with the hedonist's conviction that ending suffering must have priority over learning lessons? That comes from someplace else, I think. You can empathize with someone and believe that something must (and always can) be done, and you can empathize just as strongly yet believe that nothing can be done. Yet another person might say that nothing should be done, but we're probably not dealing with an empathetic response in that case. In any event, looking to empathy itself as the root cause of many of the world's problem, as Bloom seems to do, probably is a mistake.

I still feel a little empathy -- not just sympathy -- whenever I hear a small child crying inconsolably, but I don't stop everything to try to make him or her stop. There are many reasons for this, from respect for the prerogatives of family to my understanding that some things just need to be cried out. It would be more useful for academics and columnists to study the varieties of responses to empathy than to blame empathy itself for all the things that conservatives like Goldberg or liberals like Bloom don't like.

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