July 8, 2015 – Empathy and Morality


The Stone

By Paul Bloom

June 6, 2015 NYTimes website

What could be more exhilarating than experiencing the world through the perspective of another person? In “Remembrance of Things Past,” Marcel Proust’s narrator says that the only true voyage of discovery is not to visit other lands but “to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds.” This is one of the central projects of the humanities; it’s certainly part of the pleasure we get from art and literature.

Many believe that this psychological connection is also essential for political change. They may argue, for instance, that in order for white Americans to adequately respond to the events in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, they need to put themselves in the shoes of those in minority communities. After the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police officers, Hillary Rodham Clinton called for changing police tactics, and then added: “The most important thing each of us can do is to try even harder to see the world through our neighbors’ eyes, to imagine what it is like to walk in their shoes, to share their pain and their hopes and their dreams.”

This is a moral claim, but it raises a psychological question. Can we do what Mrs. Clinton asks of us? Just how successful are we at seeing the world as others see it?

Apparently, we are nowhere near as good as we think we are. In his book “Mindwise,” the psychologist Nicholas Epley discusses experiments in which people were asked to judge the thoughts of strangers. These included asking speed daters to identify others who wanted to date them, asking job candidates how impressed their interviewers were with them and asking a range of people whether or not someone was lying to them.

People are often highly confident in their ability to see things as others do, but their attempts are typically barely better than chance. Other studies find that people who are instructed to take the perspectives of others tend to do worse, not better, at judging their thoughts and emotions.

So we are often bad at the project Clinton recommends. But a fan of perspective-taking would say that we just have to get better at it; we should try harder.

There are certain limits, however, to how far we can go. The philosopher Laurie Paul, in her book “Transformative Experience,” argues that it’s impossible to actually imagine what it would be like to have certain deeply significant experiences, such as becoming a parent, changing your religion or fighting a war. The same lack of access applies to our understanding of others. If I can’t know what it would be like for me to fight in a war, how can I expect to understand what it was like for someone else to have fought in a war? If I can’t understand what it would be like to become poor, how can I know what it’s like for someone else to be poor?

One approach is to go ahead and actually have the experience. Some have chronicled their attempts to take on other identities, like Norah Vincent in her 2006 book “Self-Made Man,” a memoir of a woman posing as a man, or John Howard Griffin in “Black Like Me,” which recounts his experience living disguised as a black man.

These acts of immersion are fascinating, but they have their limits. In the aftermath of torture revelations during the Iraq war, some journalists, like Christopher Hitchens, decided to get themselves waterboarded so that they would know what it was like. I don’t doubt that they learned something from the experience, but what they didn’t experience — what they couldn’t experience — was the lack of control. Surely part of the terror of waterboarding is that it is done to you when you don’t want it and you have no way to make it stop.

This point was missed by Donald H. Rumsfeld, who, when told that prisoners had to stand for many hours a day, responded that he himself had a standing desk and was also standing for many hours a day. But of course he could sit down whenever he wanted.

There is also the issue of duration. I can imagine what it’s like to deal with a crying baby for a few minutes, or spend time by myself in a small room, or have a stranger recognize me on the street. But it’s much harder to imagine — impossible, I think — what it would be like to be a single parent, suffer a year of solitary confinement or become a famous movie star.

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; I agree with the essayist Leslie Jamison, who describes empathy as “perched precariously between gift and invasion.”

Also, Mrs. Clinton might be mistaken in her claims about the moral importance of perspective-taking. Scholars ranging from Adam Smith to the contemporary literary critic Elaine Scarry have pointed out that when we try to act morally toward strangers based on empathic projection, we typically fail. This is in part because we’re not good at it, and in part because, when we allow ourselves to be guided by our feelings, our emotional investment in ourselves and those we love is overwhelming relative to our weak attachment to strangers. We become better people and better policy makers if we rely instead on more abstract principles of justice and fairness, along with a more diffuse compassion.

None of this is to say that the project of experiencing the lives of others should be abandoned. Under the right circumstances, we might have some limited success — I’d like to believe that novels and memoirs have given me some appreciation of what it’s like to be an autistic teenager, a geisha or a black boy growing up in the South. And even if they haven’t, most of us are still intensely curious about the lives of other people, and find the act of trying to simulate these lives to be an engaging and transformative endeavor. We’re not going to stop.

But we’re not good at it, particularly when the stakes are high, and empathic engagement is far too fragile a foundation to ground public policy. To make the world better, we shouldn’t try to put ourselves in the shoes of Eric Garner or anyone else. Our efforts should instead be put toward cultivating the ability to step back and apply an objective and fair morality.

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale and the author of “Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.”

A version of this article appears in print on 06/07/2015, on page SR8 of the National edition with the headline: Imagining the Lives of Others


N.G. Krishnan Bangalore, India

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” said Lee, Harper in her book To Kill a Mockingbird.

This of course is relative to ones capacity to identify, feel and understand self feeling, to be able to project the feeling onto others. This is not simple as it sounds. Hardest part is it require the person to understand what the other is undergoing without actually having undergone it himself. Carry on the rant about “the lazy unemployed” when you have grown up in riches, is no way. But once you experience for yourself what it feels like to be unemployed a stretch, your point of view might change drastically and also how you feel about those who are facing a similar situation.

Empathy depends on actually experiencing the emotions and enables a person to empathize with someone, without the need of self experience, provided one can manage the exceptional job of mental projection into the emotional state of mind of another person, allowing identification of their feelings.

Timothy C Queens, New York

I respectfully disagree. Consider the historical Buddha. In his early life he was a wealthy prince with three palaces, whose father sought to shield him from knowledge of misfortune. But, one day while out alone, Gautama saw an old man, a beggar, and a corpse. From that one moment of understanding and empathy, the whole Buddhist enterprise followed.

My point is that it is very difficult to generate the diffuse morality that you rightfully champion without first having a visceral moment of empathy to ignite it.

For example, I was first shocked into giving to charity by seeing a young child in southeast Asia begging on the streets. From that experience I can look at a naked statistic, say, “6,000 killed in the latest aftershock”, and donate to quake aid. I don’t know any of the victims, and may not even see images of them, but I want to help because I know that if roles were reversed, I might want help too.

Don’t downplay empathy. It is the tiny spark from which effective and widespread action can begin to take root.

Raul Campos San Francisco

Empathy is not about mind reading or mentally simulating someone else’s circumstances in an egocentric attempt at emotional voyeurism. Empathy is the ability to share in the suffering of others. At its core is a deep compassion and willingness to open yourself up to the pain of others. It is not for the faint of heart or for self centered individuals. We all have empathy but we are constrained from using it by our ego that protects us from feeling the very suffering that empathy allows us to share. Our rational mind builds walls of logic that separate us from them and allow us to detach ourselves from those in need. Eventually, we begin to believe that empathy is a delusion and that we cannot truly understand others and to believe that we are islands of individuality connected not by compassion for each other but by laws and contracts and mutual self interest.

Madeline Conant Midwest

I disagree. Even if we can’t do a terribly good job of imagining ourselves in another person’s circumstance, I believe it is essential that we try. Although I do agree we should set a goal of defining morality, or justice, in objective terms, that task is impossible without compassion and human understanding.

I think this ability and willingness to imagine people in circumstances other than our own is the defining difference between liberals and conservatives.

Solomon New Haven, CT

The question that we are all charged with in this world of suffering — and more specifically, in response to the pain of oppressed communities in our very country — is not whether or not we can fully ‘imagine,’ ‘completely’ adopt, or ‘successfully’ instantiate the perspective of another. What we face is the question of critically assessing our own perspective. It is saying “I don’t understand. So tell me your story.” This is what I believe Bloom is directing us towards practically.

But this is where I think Bloom misses the point: in understanding the impossibility of totally imagining the Other’s pain, we do not retreat to objectivity. When I concede the unfathomable nature of another’s pain, I do not cease to understand. I understand that I do not understand, and that changes us. That enables and enlivens us. We go forth with the experiential knowledge that our context is not others’, that our conventions are not reality. And that is empathy.

As Bloom has outlined, there are indeeds limits to our capacity for care, understand and realize the situation of another. However, this is not a problem. As I understand it, this is the solution. We are different. And only through difference is there dialogue. And only through dialogue is there effective change. Thus the way we move towards a holistic and healthier being in the world is not through “stepping back,” it is through listening to others and constantly revisioning our horizon through encounters with difference.

Marilyn louisville

I think we actually can share the pain of others, not necessarily specifically identified pain, such as poverty or disease or loss of a loved one, for instance, but we can know our own pain and its impact on our lives. and from this knowingness can perceive the effects of pain in others. Our own pain then can have relevance beyond ourselves if we choose to use this gift of personal suffering to go deeper into the connectedness of the universe, the deepest bottom of awareness where all is one. Sometimes I become aware of a person who simply listens to a heartbroken person’s story, one who never interrupts the story of the grieving one, who neither waits for the end of the storyteller’s words to jump in with one’s own painful remembrance, nor who feels it necessary to make patronizing or judgmental remarks at the end. When I see this, I think, “That is what mysticism is all about, that shared identification of humanity in the oneness of all things where the recipient of the story understood the gift given and felt no need to add his/her personal stamp.”

Slooch Staten Island

The subject is important, but a lot of the assertions seem trivial. We’re to judge the possibility of empathy by a study of speed daters? Really? And the other “psychological studies” (not cited) are just that: studies that result in statistical information: many people (probably undergraduates) “instructed to take the perspective of others” (how?) do worse at judging their thoughts.

That means “people so instructed did worse, to a level of statistical significance.” Were the people that did really well (those instructed, as well as those not instructed) studies for commonalities? This seems not just soft science, but thin science as well.

Of course we can’t fully experience someone else’s experience, because even if we were taking in the same sense data, we don’t have the same history, and even if we learn the history, that’s not the same as living it. That is, we can be other than who we are (change, grow, impersonate), but we can’t be somebody else. But isn’t this another trivial point? Who would argue differently?

And it may also be impossible to “actually imagine” (whatever that means–hold on a second: actually “imagine?”) significant experiences that we haven’t actually had.

But it also seems likely that education, depth of life experience, immersion in mimetic art, and so on will increase empathy.