Getting Real About Empathy – Part 4 of 5: Final Thoughts

A guest post by L. P. Here are links to part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 5.

Leftists have tunnel vision when it comes to the assessment of traits that they favor; an empathetic person is “good,” a person considered unempathetic (and who favors impartial justice) is “bad.” Except for sexual orientation, the left focuses its diversity agenda on physical diversity (e.g., race, gender). Much diversity that stems from internal disposition is disregarded (e.g., diversity of political thought, certain personality traits). Researchers like Sáez et al. (who’re, ironically, going against their own espoused value of being fair-minded) are willing to advocate tweaking humanity in a eugenic bid to create a utopia. And they’re willing to do so without balanced consideration of its dangers.

As mentioned in part 3, the empathy spectrum has genetic roots; it’s not just a byproduct of dysfunctional parenting or traumatic childhoods, as is often suggested. Hence, variations on this trait are functional, like other products of nature as demonstrated in the examples related to occupational roles and contributions in part 2. Another example, not mentioned in part 2, is the need for judges to base their decisions on facts and law, not feelings. Where would the rule of law – true justice – be without such judges? Empathy-based rulings offer a compelling explanation for why known rapists and killers are given second and third chances. (Readers may assess prisoner recidivism rates here.) Regardless of any existing alternative explanations for this phenomena, bias derived from empathy is obviously undesirable in the justice system.

Being abnormal, or just different, gives an individual a unique perspective. It’s easy for me to view issues concerning empathy differently because I am differently empathetic, or even unempathetic (considering how affective empathy is prized in popular culture). On Baron-Cohen’s 7-point scale, from 0 to 6, I’d rate myself at least a 5 on cognitive empathy because I’ve proven to have the necessary cognitive empathy to excel at competitive card games that involve reading people and accurately assessing their situations and intentions. However, I’d score 0 on affective empathy because, throughout my life, I have not felt another individual’s feelings (and am content with this). Affective empathy is the type of empathy that women, as a group, are known for. Hence, I’m an outlier among women.

What’s most frustrating about the current pro-empathy bandwagon is that it’s made telling my side of the story difficult. People often say, “We need to get more women into leadership positions so that we’ll have more empathy up there,” and expect a positive reaction from me. I don’t disagree with the statement if we’re talking about randomly plucking women from the general population and foisting them into leadership positions. (Random selection would, of course, be undesirable.) It is comical, by the way, when the same people who insist that men and women, as groups, are identical also say, “But women are more empathetic than men.”

Individuals who initiate these awkward encounters don’t seem to think that it is acceptable for the less empathetic to reveal the truth about themselves. Pro-empathy people think less empathetic people are “monsters.” However, as discussed in part 2 of this series, Baron-Cohen, Kevin Dutton in The Wisdom of Psychopaths, and other researchers establish that empathetic people, particularly psychopaths who have both affective and cognitive empathy, can be “monsters” too.

In fact, Kevin Dutton’s point about psychopaths generally being able to blend in and take on the appearance of the average person makes it obvious that they must have substantial emotional intelligence (linked to cognitive empathy) and experience of others’ feelings in order to mirror others so well. To be fair, however, even “monsters” like psychopaths (who don’t easily experience fear) have the potential to function in pro-social occupational roles that aren’t well-suited for the average person. Consider, for example, the final minutes of this interview (which I’ve cued to this very moment) between psychiatrist Park Dietz and Richard Kuklinski, “The Iceman,” where the psychiatrist names a number of occupational roles (e.g., race car driver, test pilot, fighter pilot, bomb disposal technician, law enforcement officer) suitable for individuals who have a weaker-than-average fear response.

Another point to consider however, as mentioned in part 1, is that those who try to empathize with others by imagining how they would experience another’s situation aren’t truly empathetic. They’re just projecting their own feelings onto others. This brings to mind Jonathan Haidt’s study on morality and political orientation. On the “Identification with All of Humanity Scale,” liberals most strongly endorsed the dimension regarding identification with “everyone around the world.” (See page 25 of “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The psychological roots of an individualist ideology.”) How can anyone empathize with billions of persons about whom one knows nothing, and a great number of whom are anything but liberal?

Haidt’s finding is a terrific example of problems with self-evaluation and self-reported data – liberals overestimating themselves in this case. I’m not judgmental about not understanding everyone in the world. There are plenty of people I don’t understand either. However, I don’t think people who overestimate their ability to understand people should be in a position that allows them to tamper with, or try to “improve,” the lives of people they don’t understand.

To elaborate on my post on dysfunctional helpers, I can speculate on how my empathetic colleagues, who’re focused on becoming humanity’s helpers, spent so many years studying psychology but did not emerge with an understanding of the variety of people. Comparatively speaking, it’s easy for highly empathetic people to take their viscerally-based understanding of people for granted. In contrast, not having the luxury of assuming that I completely understand people drives me to engage in meticulous observation and study.

On the topic of group differences in empathy, let’s not forget there are within-group differences as well (as my point about being the odd woman out illustrates). It may be true that those on the left, on average, are more empathetic and compassionate than those on the right. But there is certainly variation within a political faction. In fact, it is quite possible for empathetic, compassionate people to support free markets and small government, as Dan Mitchell argues. It’s also possible for unempathetic people (who think they’re empathetic) to support a welfare state. All empathetic people don’t agree with each other. Neither do unempathetic people. There are many other factors that influence people’s opinions as well (e.g., intelligence, imagination, the capacity to see the big picture).

That said, whether you empathize with people or not, there are various courses of action to choose from. One flaw with Sáez et al.‘s study is that they designed “a simple economic game in which they divided money between themselves and an anonymous recipient.” This limits the solution to inequality (to “give money or not”) rather than simulating the range of solutions available in the real world (such as ones that maximize opportunity for people to climb out of poverty in a way that preserves their dignity and sense of agency). It’s also unfortunate that these researchers are driving at support for one solution (i.e., give more money) as the definitive measure of sensitivity to inequality and, by proxy, empathy.

Much more often than not, scientists and opinion leaders don’t provide a public accounting of the trade-offs associated with altering people’s empathy levels. Instead of being skeptical and asking questions, most people accept this version of science, along with the mission to “improve” humanity. It’s a sad state of affairs that empathy and compassion have been politicized, as this further reduces people’s propensity to think objectively about this subject. With a greater appreciation of the complexity of empathy, dangerous utopianism based on engineering people to be more empathetic would be rejected.

I conclude by quoting C. Daniel Batson who acknowledges the prevailing bias when it comes to evaluating altruism as a virtue. This is from his paper, “Empathy-Induced Altruistic Motivation,” written for the Inaugural Herzliya Symposium on Prosocial Motives, Emotions, and Behavior:

[W]hereas there are clear social sanctions against unbridled self-interest, there are not clear sanctions against altruism. As a result, altruism can at times pose a greater threat to the common good than does egoism.