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Low Empathy May Lead To Utilitarian Thinking

 
sojourner
 
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sojourner
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03 July 2018 21:56
 

Another example on the ‘pro empathy’ side that I saw today (meaning I think there should be a balance between empathy for individuals and utilitarianism, not one or the other, and that they both have their virtues that are sometimes in conflict) - I was reading about the soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand and the community coming together to rally around their rescue. I read that two doctors volunteered to stay with them in that cave, possibly for months - can you imagine? 24 hours of solitary confinement style darkness (with perhaps a flashlight or two) on a tiny patch of land surrounded by water that could flash flood at any moment, for an estimated 500+ hours. Nothing to do but sit there, with nothing to do, no room to move around, and limited rations, for months.


What would it do to our humanity to witness an entirely utilitarian style approach to a situation like that? To say, “Well, actually the Navy Seals, water pumps, and doctors really do represent a lot of resources and could save a numerically larger number of lives if we sent them somewhere else, so that’s what we should do. Sorry that you’ll die slowly in a cave and all that.” I mean can you even imagine? There’s something soul-destroying about the idea.


I appreciate that the value and role of individual empathy is much more difficult to quantify than utilitarian numbers that stack up much more neatly on spreadsheets (x is greater than y, ergo x is the best option, and so on,) but examples like this remind me that there is tremendous value in that which is not easily quantifiable. The coming together of the community, the inspiring example of the doctors, the sheer refusal to watch children die in agony when saving them is at least a possibility - before they even knew if they were alive in those caves - I think that very much has a value of its own. In the example it sets, in what it teaches us, and in really building the desire to help other people in need of help. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying every situation can be based on individual empathy, vs, more utilitarian thinking, but I think this is a case of seeing why both are needed. (I realize that arguing ‘in favor’ of empathy probably seems unnecessary, but I’m thinking specifically of things like Paul Bloom’s arguments ‘against’ it. I appreciate what he’s saying about the importance of egalitarianism, but think it’s important to discuss the more ethereal and difficult to quantify aspects of individual empathy as well. Inspiring examples, individual growth in compassion, people coming together… I think some aspect of that gets lost in a more clinical, numbers based approach.)

[ Edited: 03 July 2018 22:11 by sojourner]
 
 
Quadrewple
 
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Quadrewple
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04 July 2018 10:21
 
NL. - 03 July 2018 09:56 PM

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying every situation can be based on individual empathy, vs, more utilitarian thinking, but I think this is a case of seeing why both are needed. (I realize that arguing ‘in favor’ of empathy probably seems unnecessary, but I’m thinking specifically of things like Paul Bloom’s arguments ‘against’ it. I appreciate what he’s saying about the importance of egalitarianism, but think it’s important to discuss the more ethereal and difficult to quantify aspects of individual empathy as well. Inspiring examples, individual growth in compassion, people coming together… I think some aspect of that gets lost in a more clinical, numbers based approach.)

You provide an interesting example.  I would speculate (without evidence of course) that for those doctors to not attempt to save those people who may or may not have been alive would have clashed with their respective self-images.  If one visualizes themselves as a hero or even simply as someone who will always try to help save lives if they can, even if it puts them in danger - if one gains their self-esteem from their willingness and ability to do so, is such a decision motivated by empathy?  It’s an interesting question to mull over which I obviously don’t have the answer to.  I suspect there are at least a small % of police officers and other first responders who are motivated by this moreso than empathy, but I don’t have any proof of this.

 
 
sojourner
 
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sojourner
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04 July 2018 19:42
 
Quadrewple - 04 July 2018 10:21 AM
NL. - 03 July 2018 09:56 PM

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying every situation can be based on individual empathy, vs, more utilitarian thinking, but I think this is a case of seeing why both are needed. (I realize that arguing ‘in favor’ of empathy probably seems unnecessary, but I’m thinking specifically of things like Paul Bloom’s arguments ‘against’ it. I appreciate what he’s saying about the importance of egalitarianism, but think it’s important to discuss the more ethereal and difficult to quantify aspects of individual empathy as well. Inspiring examples, individual growth in compassion, people coming together… I think some aspect of that gets lost in a more clinical, numbers based approach.)

You provide an interesting example.  I would speculate (without evidence of course) that for those doctors to not attempt to save those people who may or may not have been alive would have clashed with their respective self-images.  If one visualizes themselves as a hero or even simply as someone who will always try to help save lives if they can, even if it puts them in danger - if one gains their self-esteem from their willingness and ability to do so, is such a decision motivated by empathy?  It’s an interesting question to mull over which I obviously don’t have the answer to.  I suspect there are at least a small % of police officers and other first responders who are motivated by this moreso than empathy, but I don’t have any proof of this.


I agree that self-image can be important in shaping people’s actions, but don’t see any reason, at least hypothetically, why a positive self image couldn’t be based on utilitarian style thinking (for example - why wouldn’t the doctors feel just as good, image-wise, about saving a numerically larger number of people in a local clinic?). Asking why we see these particular actions as heroic is something of a circular question. Because we do, that’s why, because that’s what we mean by heroic. But again, at least hypothetically, there’s no reason one’s definition of heroic couldn’t involve sheer numbers and quantity - so I think the question of why this is generally not the case is an interesting and possibly informative one.

 
 
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