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Low Empathy May Lead To Utilitarian Thinking

 
NL.
 
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NL.
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15 June 2018 23:09
 

Some musings. I saw this referenced in an article recently and, upon Googling, found the topic quite interesting. See:


Here


Here


And here.


I think this demonstrates an interesting balancing act. On the one hand, Harris (and certainly his podcast guest Paul Bloom,) have spoken out ‘against’ a great deal of empathy on the grounds that it is biased and favors in-group members, those who we find appealing, and personal relationships over true egalitarianism. At the dark end of that spectrum, for example, you could say that nepotism and cronyism are pretty much based on empathy. And yet if you go too far down that spectrum, it appears that anti-social personality traits become correlated with utilitarian thinking. (Perhaps of the dystopian Twilight Zone “The Obsolete Man” style.)


I gotta say, I find individualistic vs. utilitarian concerns pretty gut wrenching and, ultimately, irresolvable. There is a chapter in Mountain Beyond Mountains (can’t quote the whole chapter but it’s summarized here,) that deals with the decision to treat one child (who ultimately dies even after treatment,) at enormous expense, in a situation where the same amount of money could potentially have been spent on medical outreach for a much broader local group. I don’t see any satisfactory answer to that dilemma. On the one hand, yes, arguably more people could have been saved by spreading out the money. On the other, I think there is something intuitive that pulls us away from going too far in that direction. One can envision a movie about going to heroic lengths to save one child. One cannot envision a movie about letting one child die of cancer in order to prepare aid packages for 2,000 other people. I think that speaks to something fundamental in our humanity, that the first story resonates strongly in a positive manner while the second is depressing even if more people were ultimately helped.


It seems to me that the argument ‘for’ empathy and individualism (vs. utilitarianism,) is similar to the argument I would make for vegetarianism (even though I am not a vegetarian,) even if every animal you eat lives a happy life and is killed painlessly. I think something fundamental in our psychology shifts when we eat other sentient beings. There is a reason that we don’t eat humans and pets under any circumstances - it represents a basic attitude and orientation that can’t be maintained, I think, when you, well, eat an animal. Similarly I think that the ‘light’ side of inegalitarian thinking - developing a relationship with one person fully rather than interacting with all people as interchangeable, faceless units - is necessary to and valuable for our individual psychology, regardless of external circumstances. And that does entail preferencing closer relationship over more distant ones. At the most basic level, a parent takes their own child to the emergency room if they break their arm, they don’t conduct a global triage and say “Sorry honey, it looks like millions of people are starving or dying of preventable diseases, so you are number 850 million in line. I’ll take you to the hospital after these other kids are taken care of.” But even when you get into more ‘frivolous’ expenses, a part of me still thinks there is (or might be) something sort of fundamentally valuable about attending to the needs of a few special relationships carefully - celebrating an anniversary at a nice restaurant with a spouse; throwing a child a special birthday party; taking an exhausted new mom out for a facial - vs. shipping off any extra money available to the neediest person across the globe in a totally impersonal, albeit totally egalitarian, way.


Perhaps I’m just justifying and trying to smooth over my guilt at living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, where the scale seems so ludicrously skewed. (It’s hard to think about what a nice dinner, or a birthday party, or a facial in US dollars would buy someone living in an impoverished country, even if these don’t seem like wild extravagances in our culture.) But it does seem at least possible that, psychologically, something is lost when we don’t have the ability to form at least somewhat preferential relationships with others. It seems to me that the value of such relationships - even though they do represent a form of favoritism - is in what they cultivate in the minds of individuals. The ability to really love and know and be invested in the life of another.


At any rate, I do think it’s interesting that empathy and egalitarianism do seem to be at least somewhat logically opposed to one another. I think that’s a very delicate middle path to find, as they are both very, very important values - the cultivation of in-depth relationships and the aspiration to treat all people fairly. Perhaps the answer lies in the Golden Rule - if you asked most people what they wanted as the norm, in a totally egalitarian world where the same norms applied to everyone, I think there is something in our humanity that would cause people to desire empathic relationships as an egalitarian norm.

 
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16 June 2018 17:52
 

I share your sense of ambiguity.

We evolved to live in small, tight knit tribes; to wander from place to place with each day being a new, improvised adventure; to reproduce young and to die young. The struggle to survive was enough; the quest for the meaning of existence was a luxury.

And most of all, those small wandering tribes of our ancestors were completely egalitarian. They shared everything, and I mean everything. There is considerable evidence showing that they were as promiscuous as our primate cousins, the bonobos.

It was only during the past 10,000 years or so, that hierarchies and the accumulation of vast wealth by individuals like kings and emperors occurred. In this new “civilized” context, having sociopaths or psychopaths willing to kill, assassinate or intimidate others became handy. A person willing to murder a complete stranger with no remorse or regret could be of use to a person accumulating power and influence.

There was recently a book about psychopaths which stated that these sort of people are great at climbing the corporate ladder. They can feign compassion and feelings, but when it comes time to drop the hammer and perform some cut throat capitalist maneuver that will cost thousands of people their livelihoods, being a psychopath is an advantage.

 
 
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16 June 2018 19:07
 

The interesting thing is that I think you could make the opposite case as well - that the idea of psychopathic traits as pure evil is actually a more modern one, and behaviors we consider psychopathic today wouldn’t have necessarily been noteworthy in the past. Warfare between tribes was expected as a part of life in many places for eons, and this excerpt from Sapiens below really surprised me. This group was apparently very close knit and loving and yet the acts described, if imported to modern society, would be considered the worst kind of evil, conceivable only by the most depraved criminals imaginable. I’m sure hunter gather bands in the distant past were quite diverse, of course, but it’s still entirely possible that these things went on in at least some of them:

The Aché people, hunter-gatherers who lived in the jungles of Paraguay until the 1960s, offer a glimpse into the darker side of foraging. When a valued band member died, the Aché customarily killed a little girl and buried the two together. Anthropologists who interviewed the Aché recorded a case in which a band abandoned a middle-aged man who fell sick and was unable to keep up with the others. He was left under a tree. Vultures perched above him, expecting a hearty meal. But the man recuperated, and, walking briskly, he managed to rejoin the band. His body was covered with the birds’ faeces, so he was henceforth nicknamed ‘Vulture Droppings’.

When an old Aché woman became a burden to the rest of the band, one of the younger men would sneak behind her and kill her with an axe-blow to the head. An Aché man told the inquisitive anthropologists stories of his prime years in the jungle. ‘I customarily killed old women. I used to kill my aunts . . . The women were afraid of me . . . Now, here with the whites, I have become weak.’ Babies born without hair, who were considered underdeveloped, were killed immediately. One woman recalled that her first baby girl was killed because the men in the band did not want another girl. On another occasion a man killed a small boy because he was ‘in a bad mood and the child was crying’. Another child was buried alive because ‘it was funny-looking and the other children laughed at it’.

We should be careful, though, not to judge the Aché too quickly. Anthropologists who lived with them for years report that violence between adults was very rare. Both women and men were free to change partners at will. They smiled and laughed constantly, had no leadership hierarchy, and generally shunned domineering people. They were extremely generous with their few possessions, and were not obsessed with success or wealth. The things they valued most in life were good social interactions and high-quality friendships.8 They viewed the killing of children, sick people and the elderly as many people today view abortion and euthanasia. It should also be noted that the Aché were hunted and killed without mercy by Paraguayan farmers. The need to evade their enemies probably caused the Aché to adopt an exceptionally harsh attitude towards anyone who might become a liability to the band.

The truth is that Aché society, like every human society, was very complex. We should beware of demonising or idealising it on the basis of a superficial acquaintance. The Aché were neither angels nor fiends – they were humans. So, too, were the ancient hunter-gatherers.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind


On the one hand I think we have modern atrocities that didn’t exist in days of yore; on the other I think many ancient atrocities have been very much reduced. How those scales balance out in the end, in terms of whether we are generally better or worse people (or the same) than our hunter gatherer ancestors, I really don’t know. Civilization is really a very new construct and it’s hard to compare it to the eons that came before it.


That said, I actually wasn’t saying that I think the fact that utilitarianism is associated with low empathy means it must be a bad thing. Empathy is kind of a hot topic in psychology right now, I think, and I think there’s growing agreement that it’s not necessarily a ‘more is better’ phenomenon, that within a normal range, there may be advantages to both higher and lower affective empathy. Lower affective empathy may actually be more naturally conducive to egalitarian thinking, for example, which is necessary for fair, impartial and equal treatment, rule of law, and so on. Higher empathy, on the other hand, represents the reason why we should care about fairness and equality in the first place - while, ironically, causing us to favor certain people. There seems to be a kind of yin yang relationship there, where one style of thinking couldn’t really exist without the other. If a person empathized fully with everyone in their path, from criminals to saints, it would be very hard for them to make decisions that were conducive to the greater good. If a person empathized with no one, they might have the ability to make such decisions but no reason to, as the fates of others wouldn’t concern them. It seems that any moral agent has to have some combination of detached, ‘un-empathetic’ rationality and affective empathy to be a moral agent in the first place.

 
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17 June 2018 00:50
 

I feel the ability to switch gears and operate in a low empathy mode is an extraordinarily useful attribute assuming that some first principles can be preserved. Setting ones feeling aside in the interest of the long view is a big part of what makes any human progress possible, in my estimation.

I appreciate high empathy individuals but I rarely rely upon them.

Hopefully I’m not missing the larger point here. (I didn’t read the totality of every link)

 
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17 June 2018 06:34
 
NL. - 15 June 2018 11:09 PM

. . .

I gotta say, I find individualistic vs. utilitarian concerns pretty gut wrenching and, ultimately, irresolvable. There is a chapter in Mountain Beyond Mountains (can’t quote the whole chapter but it’s summarized here,) that deals with the decision to treat one child (who ultimately dies even after treatment,) at enormous expense, in a situation where the same amount of money could potentially have been spent on medical outreach for a much broader local group. I don’t see any satisfactory answer to that dilemma. On the one hand, yes, arguably more people could have been saved by spreading out the money. On the other, I think there is something intuitive that pulls us away from going too far in that direction. One can envision a movie about going to heroic lengths to save one child. One cannot envision a movie about letting one child die of cancer in order to prepare aid packages for 2,000 other people. I think that speaks to something fundamental in our humanity, that the first story resonates strongly in a positive manner while the second is depressing even if more people were ultimately helped.
. . .

Focusing just on medical treatment, the U.S., Canada and no doubt many other regions of the science-driven world medically treat the most fragile patients with skill and compassion whether or not any specific patient is paying for his/her care, though it could be that such patients do better in some states than others. California residents who are disabled and lack income have access to some of the best medical specialists in the world, as long as they can find a way to get to them. And as long as they more or less go with the flow, they’re able to find ways to get to these clinics and hospitals.

Empathy motivation that’s local tends—and needs—to be far stronger than global empathy motivation, simply because global conditions/needs can be guessed about, interfered with, and occasionally actually helped, but local needs are those that are right in front of us. For global efforts, things need to be somehow engineered not to end up being just shots in the dark that change nothing in a permanent way and very often do more harm than long-term good.

[ Edited: 17 June 2018 07:03 by nonverbal]
 
 
NL.
 
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17 June 2018 09:57
 
Brick Bungalow - 17 June 2018 12:50 AM

I feel the ability to switch gears and operate in a low empathy mode is an extraordinarily useful attribute assuming that some first principles can be preserved. Setting ones feeling aside in the interest of the long view is a big part of what makes any human progress possible, in my estimation.

I appreciate high empathy individuals but I rarely rely upon them.


Well, keep in mind that as someone who is liberally minded (if I remember correctly) in an individualistic, high empathy country, you probably are a high empathy individual in the eyes of many. I know plenty of people would consider my views ‘bleeding heart’, fiscally overindulgent, and representing what my conservative family members call an ‘all the rights and none of the responsibilities’ attitude. So I think a lot of it is relative - I think it’s human nature to conceive of our own views as “kind but reasonable”, “tough but fair” and all that, while if you move a little to one side we judge people as ‘emotional’ or ‘hysterical’; move a little to the other and we perceive them as ‘callous’ or ‘uncaring’.


That’s what I find so difficult about issues of greater good vs. individual compassion. In the end my conscience generally puts me on the side of compassion for individuals - it just ‘feels wrong’ not to go that route. But while I think there’s a lot of danger in the extremes of the ‘tough love’ crowd (at the furthest extremes I think those psychological axioms turn into a dystopian, zero sum assumption that humans have no humanity and we’re all just living in the Hunger Games or something - a picture of the world that, if it were true [which it isn’t] - wouldn’t be a world worth living in anyhow) at more moderate levels I do sympathize with more utilitarian minded individuals who I think are sometimes unfairly demonized. Working in special education - which, in the schools at least, has operated on the ‘unfunded mandate’ model for years - I have seen how totally understandable human sympathies can lead to ineffective systems. There is something Kafka-esque about a model that says “Nobody wants to be the horrible person who sets limits on funding, so instead what we’ll do is say students are required by law to have whatever services and equipment they need with no limits, even when those cost easily over five figures a year per student, but then we won’t actually provide the funding and then special ed teachers and therapists can explain that to parents ok have fun with that kthnxbye!”


I don’t have any sort of ultimate conclusion on this topic, in general I just think it’s an interesting one to explore for the sake of understanding others.

 
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17 June 2018 11:04
 
nonverbal - 17 June 2018 06:34 AM

Empathy motivation that’s local tends—and needs—to be far stronger than global empathy motivation, simply because global conditions/needs can be guessed about, interfered with, and occasionally actually helped, but local needs are those that are right in front of us. For global efforts, things need to be somehow engineered not to end up being just shots in the dark that change nothing in a permanent way and very often do more harm than long-term good.


I think it depends. On the one hand, differing cultures can mean that well-intended efforts abroad can end badly. On the other, I think given resource distribution in the world, some problems in severely impoverished areas can be more straightforward. For example, The Gates Foundation, if I remember correctly, took on both global health and domestic education reform at its onset, with very good results in the former and a kind of slow petering out in the latter. I would say that people not having access to medical care is often a fairly straightforward problem that you can indeed just ‘throw money at’ to some extent (not to say they weren’t careful and data-driven, but relatively speaking), while education in a wealthy first world country is going to be multi-faceted and involve a huge number of variables.


Going off in a somewhat different direction - it occurred to me today that I think there is likely a fourth kind of empathic phenomenon (in addition to affective empathy, motor imitation, and mentalizing, which are what I have seen talked about in articles thus far,) that falls under something like ‘hive mind’ or ‘twinning’. This is a connection that has an almost surreal feel to it, in terms of how weirdly similar two people in the same general zeitgeist can be. Recently I wanted to surprise a relative with a gift from a company that is not ‘unknown’ but not super well known - then was surprised to find that another person got the recipient almost the exact same gift from the exact same company and it was delivered on the exact same day. Perhaps things like that are just statistical flukes, but to me it points to the idea that human minds can be so, well, similar. Sort of like the phenomenon wherein everyone in a generation tends to name their kids the same thing (at the same time, so it’s not as if the names become popular first and then slowly catch on.) My little niece has a favorite dress now that she wants to wear all the time, and the print on it is almost exactly the same as my favorite dress from childhood, and it’s not a super common print. I mean again, maybe that’s just a statistical fluke, but if it’s not, I don’t think that falls under any of the traditional forms of ‘empathy’. It’s not feeling what another person feels, it’s not understanding what they think, it’s not imitating their actions, it’s almost as if one is ‘imitating’ something from a larger whole, as if culture itself becomes an almost agent-like entity whose actions can be mirrored with remarkable similarity and specificity across space and time.

 
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17 June 2018 11:11
 

There is only so much empathy that I can have. The closer to home, the more empathy.  My tank runs pretty low when reading about a bus wreck in Mongolia that killed 20 people. It runs higher when it’s in my county, and real high if I know one of the victims.

 
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17 June 2018 21:21
 
NL. - 17 June 2018 09:57 AM
Brick Bungalow - 17 June 2018 12:50 AM

I feel the ability to switch gears and operate in a low empathy mode is an extraordinarily useful attribute assuming that some first principles can be preserved. Setting ones feeling aside in the interest of the long view is a big part of what makes any human progress possible, in my estimation.

I appreciate high empathy individuals but I rarely rely upon them.


Well, keep in mind that as someone who is liberally minded (if I remember correctly) in an individualistic, high empathy country, you probably are a high empathy individual in the eyes of many. I know plenty of people would consider my views ‘bleeding heart’, fiscally overindulgent, and representing what my conservative family members call an ‘all the rights and none of the responsibilities’ attitude. So I think a lot of it is relative - I think it’s human nature to conceive of our own views as “kind but reasonable”, “tough but fair” and all that, while if you move a little to one side we judge people as ‘emotional’ or ‘hysterical’; move a little to the other and we perceive them as ‘callous’ or ‘uncaring’.


That’s what I find so difficult about issues of greater good vs. individual compassion. In the end my conscience generally puts me on the side of compassion for individuals - it just ‘feels wrong’ not to go that route. But while I think there’s a lot of danger in the extremes of the ‘tough love’ crowd (at the furthest extremes I think those psychological axioms turn into a dystopian, zero sum assumption that humans have no humanity and we’re all just living in the Hunger Games or something - a picture of the world that, if it were true [which it isn’t] - wouldn’t be a world worth living in anyhow) at more moderate levels I do sympathize with more utilitarian minded individuals who I think are sometimes unfairly demonized. Working in special education - which, in the schools at least, has operated on the ‘unfunded mandate’ model for years - I have seen how totally understandable human sympathies can lead to ineffective systems. There is something Kafka-esque about a model that says “Nobody wants to be the horrible person who sets limits on funding, so instead what we’ll do is say students are required by law to have whatever services and equipment they need with no limits, even when those cost easily over five figures a year per student, but then we won’t actually provide the funding and then special ed teachers and therapists can explain that to parents ok have fun with that kthnxbye!”


I don’t have any sort of ultimate conclusion on this topic, in general I just think it’s an interesting one to explore for the sake of understanding others.

I agree. I’m evaluating the concept in microcosm. Essentially in relation to individual persons that I know well. I have few formed opinions at larger scales. I’m very open to argument and discussion on the topic.

The spectrum is, of course relative to personal perspective. I think we all form our own individual baseline on such issues.

 
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18 June 2018 10:11
 
Brick Bungalow - 17 June 2018 09:21 PM

I agree. I’m evaluating the concept in microcosm. Essentially in relation to individual persons that I know well. I have few formed opinions at larger scales. I’m very open to argument and discussion on the topic.

The spectrum is, of course relative to personal perspective. I think we all form our own individual baseline on such issues.


I agree, even if I find that dynamic frustratingly non-quantifiable. Managing to line up millions of individual subjective baselines at a societal level. That said, the upside to that is probably that differing perspectives help us to become empathetic and compassionate in areas we have become desensitized to. (A good example, I think, is all the outrage in this country over dog meat festivals in Asia, while factory farming doesn’t strike many as cruel because it involves farm animals.) I feel truly horrible saying this, but I think having worked in foster care made me less, not more empathetic to the parent child border separations that are so controversial right now. A staggering number of people are arrested for marijuana possession each year. If they have kids, then yes, those kids are taken away while they’re incarcerated. There are not daycares or ‘ways for families to be together’ in jail or prison, the kids either live with a relative or go into foster care or a group home. I think having been exposed, however briefly, to a dynamic where no one raised an eyebrow at that at all, kinda normalized the idea in my mind - no one ever spoke of it as a tragedy then, so I didn’t frame it as one. That’s not to say people didn’t care greatly about the kids, but the focus was on how to help them, and be a good influence, after they were separated from their parents. Now, seeing the reaction of people witnessing parent-child separations for the first time (not all of them, but for many, I think it’s probably not something they’d considered before,) I see it more with fresh eyes and consider how devastating that must be for a child and a parent.


So, I think a multitude of perspectives does help us to balance each other out in the end, even if it means a lot of conflict and misunderstanding along the way. I think it can cut both ways - sometimes a new perspective is needed to awaken empathy; and sometimes people can develop “Ivory Tower” expectations by living in a bit of a bubble - I think especially when judging other cultures, there is a tendency to think anything ‘they’ do that seems cruel is done out of sheer malice or backwardness, while in our own societies anything we do that seems cruel is done out of the most pragmatic utilitarianism. Ongoing exposure to new perspectives seems to be at least something of a remedy to this.

[ Edited: 18 June 2018 10:16 by NL.]
 
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30 June 2018 08:30
 

A big part of empathy is realizing that one’s feelings are subjective, and thus feelings cannot be a mediator of disputes.  Feelings are tools to help individual humans get their needs and desires met.

If low empathy is correlated with utilitarian thinking, then logically, high empathy is correlated with anti-utilitarian thinking.

Ultimately, whether or not utilitarianism is in practice a “low-empathy” position is still up for debate.  Wouldn’t the person who chose to kill the 1 to prevent the deaths of the 5 be more empathic to the overall suffering and ripple effect those 5 deaths would have as opposed to the 1?

Someone who could easily kill that 1 person with no remorse concerns me, but these lifeboat scenarios very rarely happen, and one’s calculated logic in the abstract might fail them in the face of the actual situation.

All that being said, someone who is very emotional is oftentimes not being logical and vice versa.  There are times and places for emotional expression and action and there are times and places for logical action.  I would argue that politics is not the place for emotion, and neither are situations of danger.  Getting the gist of someone else’s emotional state is usually enough information to safely proceed in action - I don’t see the benefit in attempting to feel the same emotion as the other person.

[ Edited: 30 June 2018 08:43 by Quadrewple]
 
 
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30 June 2018 08:38
 
Quadrewple - 30 June 2018 08:30 AM

If low empathy is correlated with utilitarian thinking, would it would be a stretch to say that high empathy is correlated with anti-utilitarian thinking?

Yes.

 
 
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30 June 2018 08:47
 
SkepticX - 30 June 2018 08:38 AM

Yes.

Okay

 
 
NL.
 
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30 June 2018 20:46
 
Quadrewple - 30 June 2018 08:30 AM

A big part of empathy is realizing that one’s feelings are subjective, and thus feelings cannot be a mediator of disputes.  Feelings are tools to help individual humans get their needs and desires met.

If low empathy is correlated with utilitarian thinking, then logically, high empathy is correlated with anti-utilitarian thinking.

Ultimately, whether or not utilitarianism is in practice a “low-empathy” position is still up for debate.  Wouldn’t the person who chose to kill the 1 to prevent the deaths of the 5 be more empathic to the overall suffering and ripple effect those 5 deaths would have as opposed to the 1?

Someone who could easily kill that 1 person with no remorse concerns me, but these lifeboat scenarios very rarely happen, and one’s calculated logic in the abstract might fail them in the face of the actual situation.

All that being said, someone who is very emotional is oftentimes not being logical and vice versa.  There are times and places for emotional expression and action and there are times and places for logical action.  I would argue that politics is not the place for emotion, and neither are situations of danger.  Getting the gist of someone else’s emotional state is usually enough information to safely proceed in action - I don’t see the benefit in attempting to feel the same emotion as the other person.


A nitpick (not solely in response to your post, Quadrewple, but just something I see commonly) - a distinction that I think is very important, and not well reflected in colloquial English - there is no logical way to say emotion and politics should be separated. It’s like saying health and medicine should be separated. The very existence of politics is a system to manage the competing emotions and desires of a large group - there would pretty much be no reason for it to exist if we weren’t subjective beings. If sentient beings had no desires (emotions) they would have no politics, any more than large groups of calculators form political groups. Calculators are exceedingly rational, but they don’t want anything, therefore they have no competing wants, therefore they have no need of politics.


I think what people mean when they say ‘emotion’ or ‘emotional’ is actually ‘overwhelmed by emotion’. Overwhelmed to the point that one’s attention becomes much more narrowly focused, and attention to the needs of others and / or the ability to consider a variety of problem-solving strategies is not available in that moment. But being overwhelmed by emotion and incorporating emotion are two subtly different things, to my mind.


Regarding whether empathy is cognitively necessary or not when problem solving - I am of the opinion that it is. I don’t mean that as a moral judgement, I mean I think it is literally necessary to function as an adult human - to learn language, even basic social skills, understand culture and context, and so on. This is a very long side topic but what we tend to call empathy is often referred to as ‘simulation’ in ‘simulation theory’, and while it is by no means a settled issue, I personally do think the development of human cognition depends on the ability to simulate the states of others - i.e., empathy. Granted, in the realm of problem solving, I think a person with low empathy (as in, significantly outside the typical range,) could certainly contribute to society in many positive ways - the ‘hard sciences’ generally do not require a great deal of empathy, for example, and can add tremendous things to our society. But I am skeptical of the idea that someone with atypically low empathy would be well-placed in politics, and, as an extension, skeptical of the idea that typical individuals would be well-served to ‘turn off’ all empathy in politics. The benefit in assuming the same emotion as the other person - hopefully at a very mild, much reduced level, so that it is not overwhelming - is being able to understand the situation fully. By way of example - imagine a dystopian scenario where you programmed an AI system with zero empathy to ‘reduce world hunger’. A computer with no human understanding might attempt to solve that problem by killing anyone suffering from hunger - it would see this as a ‘logical’ path from Point A to Point B. That is of course a very extreme example of ‘using any means for a particular ends’ thinking, but more nuanced examples do happen all the time (I disagree that lifeboat scenarios are rare in real life - when you think about it, they occur often in military conflict, in our decisions about how many asylum seekers to allow into the country, providing health care, and so on.) Empathy allows us to weigh what we feel is the relative value of various emotional components when it comes to means/ends decision making.


Another example - if your child was going to scream, cry, and become extraordinarily distressed over being taken to the hospital to receive a life-saving medical intervention, you would weigh the child’s distress against the possible fatal outcome and insist on the treatment anyhow. If your child was going to scream, cry, and become extraordinarily distressed over riding a roller coaster that you thought was super cool, you would weigh both emotional factors and decide their distress was more important than your thinking the roller coaster was pretty cool. Etc. But those both involve value judgements, and values are based on our feelings, how highly we prioritize something as sentient beings. The ranking we give to ‘life’; ‘riding a cool roller coaster’ and ‘temporary extreme distress’ is based on what we as human beings value, at a felt level, and the ability to have consensus on those rankings comes from empathy (even if you want to ride the roller coaster, you can empathize with the feeling of being extremely distressed; compare those two states, and come up with a ranking based not on what you want, but based on what people would generally want if put in that situation). Take away any and all access to that ‘felt level’ and I think making appropriate decisions would be extremely difficult (look at all the worry people feel right now about AI, after all - the idea of a system that can problem solve but not perspective take.)


Granted, you could say that a parent who 100% empathized with their child’s extreme distress over the medical treatment would feel the same extreme distress and aversion, and have a hard time seeing the big picture and telling the child they still had to go to the hospital. But I think that gets back to the level of empathy being overwhelming. In a broader sense, I think, again, that the way in which a parent comes to know that life is ultimately more valuable than temporary distress is via empathy - being able to envision themselves in that situation and realizing what they would ultimately want, in the big picture if not in that exact moment. If they lacked that, they would be a complete sociopath who would go “Whatever, fine, don’t go to the doctor’s then, whatever floats your boat.”


As a somewhat interesting aside - I do think empathic understanding is fluid and can be developed in different ways. People with CIPA, for example, a congenital inability to feel physical pain, still feel empathy towards those who feel physical pain (I can find the citation if you want, but if I remember correctly the gist is that they will flinch if someone bangs their elbow or hits their thumb with a hammer just like anyone else.) People with CIPA can, however, feel emotional pain - it isn’t as if they have no neurological ‘pain’ center at all. So it seems clear to me that they learn to extrapolate from one experience to another based on sheer hypotheticals (i.e. “If I could feel pain, and I hit my thumb with a hammer, that would be upsetting. Ouch!”) as they literally can’t feel what the other person is feeling in a literal sense. So there are probably different routes to being able to empathize with the experience of another - but whatever route one takes, I think the general ability to factor in that empathy, when solving problems, is crucial.

[ Edited: 30 June 2018 21:08 by NL.]
 
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01 July 2018 08:24
 
NL. - 30 June 2018 08:46 PM

A nitpick (not solely in response to your post, Quadrewple, but just something I see commonly) - a distinction that I think is very important, and not well reflected in colloquial English - there is no logical way to say emotion and politics should be separated. It’s like saying health and medicine should be separated. The very existence of politics is a system to manage the competing emotions and desires of a large group - there would pretty much be no reason for it to exist if we weren’t subjective beings. If sentient beings had no desires (emotions) they would have no politics, any more than large groups of calculators form political groups. Calculators are exceedingly rational, but they don’t want anything, therefore they have no competing wants, therefore they have no need of politics.

That’s a good point you’re making, and it’s why I felt the first paragraph of my post was necessary to include - that part of empathy is realizing that one’s emotional state is subjective, and thus simply proclaiming or displaying various emotional states cannot mediate disputes.

I realize that there was more nuance to be added based on what I said after that, and I think you did a good job of adding it.  I would never argue that someone shouldn’t incorporate emotion into something (if that is even possible for most people).  I would only argue that proclaiming one’s emotions or displaying emotions is not a mediator for disputes (much as some people might wish it was).  If two people are angry, and they both believe displaying/proclaiming their emotional state IS capable of mediating the situation, it becomes a battle of escalating emotions - and the end result is a lack of rationality by both parties, and oftentimes violence or verbal abuse.

NL. - 30 June 2018 08:46 PM

But I am skeptical of the idea that someone with atypically low empathy would be well-placed in politics, and, as an extension, skeptical of the idea that typical individuals would be well-served to ‘turn off’ all empathy in politics.

Let’s take an actual example then - the recent immigration controversy.  I do not think it’s good persuasion to do what Corey Lewandowski did by saying “Wah, wah” when someone told him a sob story about a child with Downs Syndrome being separated from her parents, even though I absolutely agree with the point he made right after that - which is that you can lift sob stories from any side of any political issue, and as such, sob stories cannot possibly be a mediating factor.  His opponent was so emotionally triggered, he basically drowned out Corey’s point.

So showing empathy is good persuasion, but it has nothing to do with the philosophy of any given situation or view - I suppose that’s what I meant when I said politics is not the place for emotion.  So really I should have said “Philosophy is not the place for emotions.”  The guy who was debating Corey Lewandowski did not put forward a philosophical argument, and opted to morally shame Lewandowski instead of addressing his point - that is good persuasion, but has nothing to do with philosophy.  If the topic was “Is Guy X or Corey Lewandowski a better person?!” his approach of bringing up the sob story, and then morally shaming when Lewandowski didn’t respond to the emotional content of the story would have been very appropriate

Politics is the intersection of philosophy and persuasion.  Some people are very persuasive but are bad at philosophy, some people are very philosophical but bad at persuasion.  That being said, dismissing good philosophy because of bad persuasion is a problem which can have concrete consequences in the real world.  Dismissing good persuasion because of bad philosophy tends to lead to a lack of achieving one’s political self-interest.

 
 
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01 July 2018 09:29
 
Quadrewple - 01 July 2018 08:24 AM

That’s a good point you’re making, and it’s why I felt the first paragraph of my post was necessary to include - that part of empathy is realizing that one’s emotional state is subjective, and thus simply proclaiming or displaying various emotional states cannot mediate disputes.

I realize that there was more nuance to be added based on what I said after that, and I think you did a good job of adding it.  I would never argue that someone shouldn’t incorporate emotion into something (if that is even possible for most people).  I would only argue that proclaiming one’s emotions or displaying emotions is not a mediator for disputes (much as some people might wish it was).  If two people are angry, and they both believe displaying/proclaiming their emotional state IS capable of mediating the situation, it becomes a battle of escalating emotions - and the end result is a lack of rationality by both parties, and oftentimes violence or verbal abuse.


I tend to agree, although I do have some romantic attachment to the fiery emotion that is part of the US’s creation story. Patrick Henry and his impassioned oratories, for example. That said, while I feel a bit wistful at the idea that perhaps that is a bygone era, I do think the world we live in today is better suited to rational, considered dialogue between all parties.

NL. - 30 June 2018 08:46 PM

But I am skeptical of the idea that someone with atypically low empathy would be well-placed in politics, and, as an extension, skeptical of the idea that typical individuals would be well-served to ‘turn off’ all empathy in politics.

Let’s take an actual example then - the recent immigration controversy.  I do not think it’s good persuasion to do what Corey Lewandowski did by saying “Wah, wah” when someone told him a sob story about a child with Downs Syndrome being separated from her parents, even though I absolutely agree with the point he made right after that - which is that you can lift sob stories from any side of any political issue, and as such, sob stories cannot possibly be a mediating factor.  His opponent was so emotionally triggered, he basically drowned out Corey’s point.

So showing empathy is good persuasion, but it has nothing to do with the philosophy of any given situation or view - I suppose that’s what I meant when I said politics is not the place for emotion.  So really I should have said “Philosophy is not the place for emotions.”  The guy who was debating Corey Lewandowski did not put forward a philosophical argument, and opted to morally shame Lewandowski instead of addressing his point - that is good persuasion, but has nothing to do with philosophy.  If the topic was “Is Guy X or Corey Lewandowski a better person?!” his approach of bringing up the sob story, and then morally shaming when Lewandowski didn’t respond to the emotional content of the story would have been very appropriate

Politics is the intersection of philosophy and persuasion.  Some people are very persuasive but are bad at philosophy, some people are very philosophical but bad at persuasion.  That being said, dismissing good philosophy because of bad persuasion is a problem which can have concrete consequences in the real world.  Dismissing good persuasion because of bad philosophy tends to lead to a lack of achieving one’s political self-interest.


That’s an interesting idea, I’d have to think about it. On the one hand, I think taking emotionally gut wrenching stories is something that people tend not to like when the other side does it - for example, Trump was strongly criticized for highlighting the stories of people who were victims of crimes committed by immigrants. In that case people quickly said “But look at overall statistics, you’re cherrypicking!”. On the other hand, I think the most extreme consequences can be illustrative of what policies we want in place at times, regardless of statistics. Take regulations as an example - we do use the worst case scenarios in many cases there. We are willing to say that a great deal of extra time, money, paperwork, licensing fees, and so on are worth it - even though in the vast majority of cases these will be unnecessary red tape for people who would have done a great job if left to their own devices - so that a very small number of catastrophically awful events can be prevented. A bridge built by a shoddy contractor collapsing; a child at a poorly run daycare left in a hot van; a cafeteria full of people contracting hepatitis from tainted food. Again, this is not something I have mulled over so I’d have to think about what I think an ideal framework there is.

 
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