Empathy out of control

To feel joy when others feel joy; to feel pain when others suffer. Every day, our own empathy enriches our experience. It allows us to feel not only for the events that affect ourselves, but also for the many more that affect others. It allows us to immerse ourselves into a story and not only understand it, but feel it - whether we are listening to a friend, watching the news, reading a book, or enjoying a movie.

Empathy connects us. Lacking it, we would be - at best - rational agents acting according to game theory, in a game of repeated Prisoner's Dilemma. We would be alone in a world in which no one feels for us, and we don't feel for anyone; a world inhabited by grayness and indifference.

Many people already live in a world like that. Many people don't have empathy. This doesn't make them broken - only different. Rest assured though, if a creature doesn't feel any empathy for you, you should not feel any empathy for it either.

But this is not an article for them. It is for those who wince at the thought of a grayless, unempathic existence. For people who might consider a life without empathy a life not worth living.

Do not led this feeling mislead you. The reason you feel that way, or I for that matter, is because it's how we're built. The capacity for empathy, it seems, does not come without strings attached. The owner has to use it to be happy. This does not mean, in and of itself, that empathy is objectively good; nor does it mean that creatures who lack it, cannot be happy. It means, however, that when you wince at the thought of a non-empathic life, you wince because you're built to require empathy to be happy.

Well-reasoned arguments could be made that empathy is essential for civilization. It could very well be that, without it, the threat we pose to each other would overwhelm the benefits that cooperation might bring. Without having empathy and knowing that the other does, trust becomes nearly impossible to establish. Rationality itself is hard to reach without people cooperating to share insights.

It would therefore be possible to say that empathy, to the extent that most of us share it, is a blessing. This blessing, however, comes with problems of its own.

The problem is that the pain we feel when we see other creatures suffer causes in us an emotional impulse for immediate action, even when the proper solution is unreachable without a tremendous amount of planning and rational thought.

One day, we may be able to eliminate suffering for all humanity. One day, we may even be able to bio-engineer animals so that they don't inflict pain on each other as well. One day, even, our empathetic descendants may fly to other stars - as many as we can reach, anyway - and heal any suffering that they may find there.

But today is not the day when we can do that. Today, we can only begin the work that may eliminate suffering later. This means that, no matter the amount of work we do - when we tune into the news and see the suffering worldwide, our empathic pain persists. This pain often causes anger. In anger, we lose the ability to even begin to understand what is likely a highly complex situation, and we seek short-term relief that likely only creates new problems on top of the existing ones.

All things considered, the problem is that our empathic circuits weren't designed for a world larger than our ancestral environment. We are built to help each other in a small group, but we are helpless and inept when it comes to understanding and building systems that can successfully avoid suffering in million-strong societies. We demand instant solutions, as if someone is in control. But we neglect to notice that, in societies that number millions, no person or group actually has control. To alleviate suffering on this scale, we must first understand the principles that govern large systems, and then design and implement a system that is resistant to failure, and which does not have major flaws.

Of necessity, the only feasible approach to solving suffering is a top-down approach; an approach that is founded in numbers, concepts, principles, and laws, much more so than immediate actions and emotions. The one approach that offers hope for our empathic pain is abstract and decidedly un-empathic.

The tragedy is that, having been built for the ancestral environment, there are many who don't recognize this. Not only do they not consider that solving large scale problems requires careful, abstract thought; frequently, one who speaks from this perspective is branded as inhuman and cold-hearted. It is perplexing how, of all professions, this is how economists get branded - people who are most concerned with human welfare and the common good.

Unfortunately, this doesn't get us any closer to solving our real problems.


daniel said...

Well written.

But I think the fundamental difference is one between people who recognize the relevance of consistency, that modeling can provide us with and the ones that don't. Krugman describes this very well in this essay.

denis bider said...

Thanks for linking that article. It is excellent.

You mention modeling, but I find the other Krugman's points equally valid. People think they're competent to talk about economics when they aren't; and media like sensation, so clueless "rebels" are preferred to old wisdoms.

It is particularly disappointing how Krugman has been unable to get basic points across to editors in major outlets. This tells us something about how a crucial problem is human arrogance - idiots in charge of communicating truth.