Reason, Empathy and Constant Choices

Who would argue against the value of empathy? Most would consider the ability to identify with and feel the suffering of others as one of our most valuable traits. Yet some disagree. Paul Bloom, the cognitive psychologist and probably the most respectable buzz kill on this subject, has consistently argued against empathy. Not that he believes there's anything wrong with it; simply that it isn't effective. For him, reason is our only hope. As a scientist, he employs reason to make his case, and he points to our rational faculty as our only reliable resource for changing human behavior and making the world a better place. He believes that if you reason with people in order to reveal the truth about our inter-dependency as a species, we will be good to one another. Beneath this assumption is the old Socratic notion that if you know what's good you will do it. It's an extremely optimistic view of human nature; plus it depends on the assumption is that our rational faculties rule us. In comparison with reason, Bloom dismisses empathy as superfluous and unreliable.

This summer, Daryl Cameron, a professor of brain sciences at the University of Iowa, wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times in defense of empathy. He quoted Bloom in order to argue against Bloom's position that empathy is a "parochial, narrow-minded" emotion that "will have to yield to reason if humanity is to survive." To counter this, Cameron drew on various studies that appear to show empathy is a choice, not simply an emotional response. Studies have shown that when empathy entails a personal cost, people are less likely to act on it. When you are in a position of power, likewise, you have less capacity to behave with empathy and are much more likely to choose in favor of self-interest. (Being more privileged than others, you identify less with the plight of others.) Cameron assembles this research to support what struck me as an unassailable finding, based on my own experience: "Another recent study . . . found that empathy was a skill that could be improved--as opposed to a fixed personality trait." He goes on to say, "empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy."

I wholeheartedly agree that our future as a species hinges on choice. But in all this there's a missing link. Both Bloom and Cameron are talking about ways in which we understand empathy. Cameron seems also in league with Socrates: for him, if we realize that empathy is a choice, not simply a feeling, our behavior will change. We'll see it as a good choice and automatically, well, choose it.

I think the most important factor is to see empathy essentially as a beneficial skill. As with every other skill in life, you need to practice it. This takes more than reasoning, and more than a new understanding--it's where constant, daily choice becomes crucial. Empathy grows, both as a skill and a feeling, the more you choose to practice it. It needs to be strengthened, like a muscle. This was the core point of The Constant Choice, where I wrote about how I came to realize that goodness is something we cultivate against our inherent nature. The evil we do is a vestige of what we've needed to do a species for tens of thousands of years: kill, steal, and strike out against the other tribe in order to survive. Hoard what we want and need, while forgetting about those outside our clan. Now we have to choose to be good against these impulses that have enabled us to prevail on this planet, before our experiment with civilized life began.

There's truth in both Bloom's and Cameron's view: we understand our own nature by reasoning about it, but we are only able to resist our deepest impulses through constant choices that slowly alter our nature for the better. And empathy is a feeling we cultivate and strengthen by making those small, tough choices. Ultimately it's empathy itself, not reason, that impels us to do what's right, without the need to reason it out, case by case. The crucial choices are often the ones that put our own self-interest at stake. When it comes to the big forks in the road, and we do what's good for others in a way that counts, reason plays a minor role. We are governed either by selfish instinct or a compassion nurtured, over years, by our own past choices, often against self-interest. The good news is, it's never too late to start making better ones.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.