Today I read Paul Bloom’s “Imagining the Lives of Others” in the New York Times. Dr. Bloom writes about the limits of empathy, in the context of politics and public policy development. He illustrates how empathy is impossible to achieve because our attachment to ourselves and those we love will always supersede our attachment for strangers – those for whom policies are made.
“People are often highly confident in their ability to see things as others do, but their attempts are typically barely better than chance.”
As responsible policy makers then, it is his opinion that we must step back and objectively observe the ideals of fair morality in developing policies, which he also writes of in another article.
Without giving it much thought, I was inclined to agree on a public policy level and disagree on a personal level. I was having this debate in my head and went looking to see if others had thought the same. When I read the comments though, I found many people having an issue digesting his article. Some of the comments that I read disagreed with Dr. Bloom ardently and were insistent on reminding others that empathy is key to being human and to a well functioning society. I didn’t think that Dr. Bloom was saying otherwise so I got interested in why people were collectively understanding in this particular way what he was trying to say.
I think that instead of looking at the policy level, their focus fell specifically on one of Dr. Bloom’s declarations in the article – we’re not good at empathy. And this sentence seems to have eclipsed everything else that he wrote.
In response to this statement, some people set out to defend their personal empathies through examples, others using a more intellectual approach by defining how they understood it and maturely acknowledging the hard task of being empathic but stating that it must be worked towards anyway.
I don’t think he was implying that we shouldn’t try, or that attempts towards empathy aren’t helpful in making society a useful social concept. He just said that we’re not good at being truly empathic, and that our attempts towards this are hampered by our love for ourselves being more than our love for others. We are simply ill-equipped to imagine what it is like to belong to other economic, cultural or historical backgrounds.
But this is our reality. We live in a particular context and time and by that exclusion, not in another. Empathy as a tool of social interaction is not strong enough for us to declare our thorough understanding of another’s context. These are the limits of empathy. Imagination and a good heart can take us some distance, but true empathy will always remain an ideal to strive towards. Empathy should therefore not be the only grounds for policy-makers to stand on when taking decisions about large numbers of people who more often than not belong to other contexts, especially since empathy is not always rational. We can’t always guide whom we feel empathic towards, to what degree and in what manner.
This to me is sensible advice. So why were some people so inclined to defend themselves? To understand this, I’m going to attempt to define empathy for the purpose of this article. Empathy, simply put, is the ability to immerse yourself in the lived experience of another, or the act of doing this, with the aim of experiencing their lives from their points of view. Nature or technology so far do not allow us this, but it seems like we’re likely to believe that we have this ability anyway.
As I understand Dr. Bloom, the ability may or not exist, but the act is something we are not capable of. In fact, we are worse for even trying.
My article is not about empathy at all, but why people were insulted at being called un-empathic. My thought was that those who felt offended were likely those that felt insulted by this confrontation, as though the article was challenging their selfless existence in society. I also thought that people felt as though they were being told that they would be unable to handle empathy, that they were not capable of processing the needs of others above their own, and they were only able to think in small circles for those close to them. I gathered this sense by chancing upon a lot of the responses that were using instances of being empathic, or making sarcastic remarks about their own ability to be remarkable empathists to rescue their personal empathies. I think they skimmed over, or ignored this bit:
“These failures should motivate a certain humility when it comes to dealing with the lives of others. Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say. This isn’t perfect — people sometimes lie, or are confused, or deluded — but it’s by far the best method of figuring out the needs, desires and histories of people who are different from us. It also shows more respect than a clumsy attempt to get into their skins…”
which could of course apply to both personal and public policy levels. Most comments were absolutely right in their assertion of personal empathy being key to humanity’s survival, and I don’t think the article was meant to disagree (though other work by Dr. Bloom examines concepts of morality and empathy more deeply).
But that’s what’s most fascinating – it was understood as though Dr. Bloom did disagree.
Public policy speaks to a more universal sense of empathy, a far more abstract notion. The development of policies is a distant concept in the minds of most people. It is done by others for others. We can imagine it less. We don’t understand that the policy will have a tangible influence on someone’s lives (we hardly ever imagine it to be our own, unless it stares us in the face). The ignorance of this in the comments is itself an affirmation of Dr. Bloom’s point.
Personal empathy however is something we all want to be proud of.
Dr. Bloom’s article, in its attempts to address a more universal sense of empathy, offended people’s belief in their personal empathy. People were unable to look past themselves and think for those whose work may be complicated by empathy. Instead, people’s sense of being ‘good’, ‘selfless’ and ‘humanitarian’ was offended. People want to believe in their own ‘goodness’ – it’s more palatable, more hopeful, and closer to home. They want to believe that they will ignore personal harm and save a dying stranger on the road. They want to believe that they will make great moms and dads.
They want to believe in all this good that sits inside them. If you’re going to tell them that they don’t know what it’s like – that they can’t imagine what it’s like – then perhaps you’re quashing a part of their fantasy lives.
Empathy also isn’t always for the less fortunate. We can empathize what it’s like to be famous or rich. If you’re telling me that I can’t empathize, you’re telling me I can’t imagine or hope for a better future. But it’s more glamorous to empathize with the less fortunate. It’s less painful to imagine a life without things we already have, than a life with things we could have but don’t.
I’ve tried to ’empathize’ on both ends. Of course I think of what it must be like to be this or that famous or influential person. But it only makes me sad to think of those who have things (material or otherwise) that I want. But I also I know that I’ve imagined what it must be like to be hungry or poor, and have devised fantasies of how I would cope, what kind of job I would get, how I wouldn’t blame others for my condition and be a strong woman who will rise to meet my sudden misfortune (film and literature fuel this fantasy). This is inspiring.
I judge others as being less fortunate, and tell myself how I would do a better job of being less fortunate than they do. I can do a better you than you. I’m a better character and my story is a better story.
So I don’t have ‘true’ empathy – I have an active imagination. I want to call that empathy because that just makes me less of an asshole. This doesn’t make me a bad person. It just reminds me to be humble (like his article says) and encourages me to remember this and tangibly help when I can.
And that’s why some people didn’t want to believe Dr. Bloom when he declared that we can’t imagine being in the shoes of others. It’s because then we would not be the good, brave, kind upstanding – and superior – stalwarts of society that we think we are.