Saturday 21 April 2018

Empathy: the new religion

  • Philosophy: The Empathy Instinct, Peter Bazalgette, John Murray, hdbk, 384 pages, €23.79
  • Against Empathy, Paul Bloom, Bodley Head, hdbk, 304 pages, €23.49
Pecking order: empathy much prefers the sad-eyed refugee child to the grown-up refugee with his possibly troublesome and alien ways
Pecking order: empathy much prefers the sad-eyed refugee child to the grown-up refugee with his possibly troublesome and alien ways
Against Empathy, Paul Bloom
The Empathy Instinct

It's the instinct that makes us help others - but is it harmful in excess? Ivan Hewett on two books that take very different positions on the usefulness of empathy.

In Ali Smith's novel How to Be Both, George and H ponder the difference between empathy and sympathy. They come up with a neat formula to perform to their class: "For empathy, H will pretend to trip and fall over in the street, and George, acting as a passer-by seeing her do this by chance, will trip over her own feet too simply because she's seen someone else do it. For sympathy, H will pretend to trip again but this time George will go over and ask her if she's all right and say things like, poor you etc."

Is empathy a good thing? Put this way, the warm glow of fellow feeling suddenly seems worse than useless - a purely unconscious thing, like a string vibrating because another string tuned to the same pitch is vibrating somewhere nearby.

But it is becoming the new religion of our times. Peter Bazalgette, the television producer who brought us, among other shows, Big Brother, is the author of the latest breathless encomium to empathy's magic powers, and how it might be the panacea to fix everything from interracial and inter-religious conflicts to the problems in our health-care system. He quotes from a speech made by Barack Obama in 2006, when the presidential hopeful said: "If we hope to meet the moral test of our times... then I think we're going to have to talk more about the empathy deficit. The ability to put ourselves in somebody else's shoes, to see the world through somebody else's eyes."

But wait; what about the devout, conservative Christians who feel outraged by the thought of gay marriage in church? Don't they deserve a little empathy? And if empathy drives us to pour more money into the welfare state, will our compassion also be good at reining us in before we've ruined the whole country, to the detriment of millions?

These are the hard questions empathy can't deal with, because they need thought, and empathy doesn't do thinking: it loves the picturesque individual, and is left unmoved by the suffering millions. There's also a definite pecking order among these picturesque individuals: empathy much prefers the sad-eyed refugee child with the teddy bear to the grown refugee, with his possibly troublesome and alien ways. Better still is the homeless child from our own country. Empathy, we now know, works better with the kind of people who look like "one of us".

That should give the empathy warriors pause: it's a worrying find in an age where we need to embrace every kind of puzzling stranger, if our multicultural societies are not to fall into chaos. But Bazalgette, in the many pages he spends detailing the awful results of that "empathy deficit", doesn't address it. Instead, his argument pivots on a woollier definition: that it's empathy that must be lacking when anyone - from loftily oppressive despots down to harsh prison guards - mistreats those they consider to be 'Other', and somehow less than human. But what if it had been their too-ready empathy for their own type that had made them take advantage of the 'Other' in the first place?

Bazalgette is hardly the first apostle of empathy. There are now more than 1,500 books in print that make a similar argument to his. It's a seductive sect within the overarching religion of our times, the worship of "feeling".

Empathy has a similar appeal to mindfulness: both want to lighten the strain of living by freeing us from the fretting of our conscious minds. But empathy goes one better than mindfulness, by adding a moral guarantee. Follow its promptings, and you'll not only be mysteriously in tune with yourself - you'll also, infallibly, be doing the right thing.

Bazalgette feels this conclusion is unarguable, because science proves it. For him, nothing in emotional or cognitive life is real unless it can be shown to light up a particular area of the brain in an MRI scan. What the research shows, according to Bazalgette, is that witnessing other people's pain lights up the same areas of the brain that light up when we feel pain ourselves. Women are especially responsive, which is why they tend to yawn more than men in response to other people's yawning.

But you don't have to wade through these scores of scientific examples, none treated with any critical detachment, to discover what's wrong with Bazalgette's book. Instead, just look at the words which make up the book's title: The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society. Try replacing "Empathy" in that title with any other instinct - sex, say, or acquisitiveness - and the wrong-headedness of his approach becomes apparent.

Creating a more civil society means creating civil individuals, and the essence of being more civil is to exercise self-restraint. The thing that must be set aside is instinct - even a nice, cuddly instinct such as empathy. Left to its own devices, unrestrained empathy can lead to results just as damaging as more obviously 'bad' instincts. Sure, one can follow its prompting, just as one can sometimes follow the prompting of acquisitiveness or lust, but only as long as it's kept in its place. "At most, it could be a reliable and useful servant - but never a master." That last sentence is actually a quotation from Against Empathy, Paul Bloom's wonderfully humane, lucid and entertaining demolition of the empathy-worshippers. He cares just as much as Bazalgette about society's ills and human suffering, but feels empathy is rarely a help in solving them.

Bloom doesn't despise the scientific research which, according to Bazalgette, "proves" that we have an empathy instinct and that it's a really good thing. He quotes from many of the same research papers, but reads them critically - and shows that empathy, when uncoupled from the rational weighing up of a situation, often has damaging results, and can actually increase the desire to inflict pain: when people are told the human interest stories about victims of aggression, for instance, they want harsher punishments for the perpetrators.

He argues that helping other people isn't about "sharing their pain", it's about doing something practical to help - and this usually means distancing oneself from the other's feeling. As he puts it, "I would prefer that those who care about me greet my panic with calm and my gloom with good cheer." The kernel of his book comes at the end, where he mounts a spirited defence of our ability to make rational decisions, guided - but not ruled - by compassion. "Even the most robust and impressive demonstrations of unconscious or irrational process do not in the slightest preclude the existence of conscious and rational processes. To think otherwise would be like concluding that because salt adds flavour to food, nothing else does."

There's a wry flavour to Against Empathy, as if Bloom knows it's too late. The purveyors of empathy and mindfulness-twaddle have already won the day, at the expense of rationality.

Bloom has been condemned as "an intellectual disgrace and a moral monster", and Bazalgette's book will probably outsell his 10-to-one.

It would be a shame, as Bazalgette's book is mere conventional wisdom, dressed up with science, whereas Bloom's is a brave and necessary tract for the times.

Indo Review

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment