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On "Compassion fatigue"- Julian Baggini

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: 24, 2017 1:02 pm     : On "Compassion fatigue"- Julian Baggini

Painful truths: psychologists unpick the ethics of empathy
Why putting yourself in others shoes can sometimes be a poor moral guide
Financial Times, Books, Essay

JANUARY 20, 2017 by: Julian Baggini

Love is so last century. What the world needs now, the only thing that theres just too little of, is empathy. Empathy is widely touted as the key to effective management, good government, better medical care, improved wellbeing, higher-achieving schools, excellent parenting, even world peace.

Yale-based psychologist Paul Bloom found more than 1,500 books available on Amazon with empathy in the title, which looks like a publishing bubble ready to burst. One of the latest to join them is by TV producer and former Arts Council England chairman Peter Bazalgette, whose effusive The Empathy Instinct has the hyperbolic subtitle How to Create a More Civil Society. This compendium of empathys supposed virtues is a useful summary of all the impressive claims made for it, often underwritten by the scientific trump card du jour: the evidence of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans. Bazalgettes zeal reaches its peak when he reports approvingly of a group of schoolchildren singing Empathy is great. We love Empathy. You should too.

Its clearly time for a backlash, and Bloom has stepped up to put a much-needed halt to the bandwagon. Against Empathy sounds iconoclastic but, like so many books with sweeping titles, two pages in the reader discovers that a much more qualified claim is being made. Bloom admits in the prologue that the book might have been called Against the Misapplication of Empathy or Empathy Is Not Everything. He gives a rational defence of his bolder choice but surely the marketing case was stronger.

By the end of the book, however, I was more sympathetic to Blooms decision to go confrontational. Empathy has become a catch-all word for every kind of understanding and niceness to others, with every breakdown in human relations explained by its absence. Bazalgette adapts the OED definition, the ability to understand and share in another persons feelings and experiences, but this is understood so broadly that everything is seen through the lens of empathy. Judging the reasonableness of peoples arguments is an empathy-related task, while he describes Nazi Germany as a society without empathy.

Bloom takes more care to distinguish the forms of empathy and how they differ from other types of kindness and comprehension. Blooms focus is on emotional empathy, the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does. He accepts that there is also such a thing as cognitive empathy a purely intellectual understanding of others but argues that the ability affectively to put yourself in anothers shoes is the terms core meaning, both in its lay and specialist usages. No one would call their manager empathetic if she was emotionally cold, no matter how good she was at anticipating her underlings needs.

Having narrowed his target, Bloom further limits his fire by accepting that empathy might be good in many contexts, such as art appreciation. However, he writes, it is a poor moral guide and from a moral standpoint, were better without it. The charge sheet reads that it is biased, shortsighted, innumerate, can spark violence and can be corrosive in personal relationships.

These accusations are backed up by a weighty dossier of evidence. Take the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in suburban Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 when 20 children and six adults were killed. The public response was deeply empathetic and deeply misguided. Millions of dollars were sent to the relatively affluent community and warehouses were filled with donated toys for which no one had any use. In the same year more children were murdered in Chicago than in Newtown, yet few wept for them or sent gifts. The Sandy Hook shootings tapped into our empathy and hijacked our altruistic impulses, diverting them from needier causes.

The perils of empathy for personal relationships are less obvious but equally clear. Doctors and nurses, for example, cannot function if they empathise too much with their patients: it simply leads to burnout. We can only take so much pain. The limit of our empathy is the only thing that saves us from being crushed by the misery of the world.

Even in closer relationships, there can be too much empathy in the form of what psychologists Vicki Helgeson and Heidi Fritz call unmitigated communion. People who score highly on this require others to be happy to be happy themselves, find it hard to say no when asked for help and worry a lot about others problems. This sounds virtuous but it isnt good for anyone. Such people tend to be overprotective and intrusive. They can even get more upset when a friend turns to someone else for help than when they dont get any help at all.

If all that werent bad enough, empathy can lead to violence. There is no more stirring call to arms than images of children being bombed or compatriots being murdered and abused. For every picture like that of the napalmed Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc, which helped shorten a war, there is one of a James Foley being beheaded by Isis to boost the case for hawkish intervention.

The overemphasis on emotional empathy, Bloom argues, draws attention away from much more important forms of rational compassion. Compassion and empathy are often taken to be, if not synonymous, then inextricably linked. Yet Bloom argues that they are quite distinct. Brain scans of Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, for example, show that the patterns of neural activation when he is engaged in compassion meditation are very different from those generally associated with empathy. Ricard could have predicted this, since Mahayana Buddhism distinguishes between sentimental compassion, which is more or less what we call empathy, and great compassion, a generalised benevolence to all. Sentimental compassion draws us into close attachments and drains us, whereas great compassion is more like the detached concern that doctors should show for their patients.

Blooms positive argument is that being good requires us to be far more rational and calculating than advocates of empathy maintain. You need to think about what the actual consequences of your actions will be, not just how they make you feel or how you imagine they will make others feel.

Bloom is surely right that empathy is alone is not enough. However, Im less convinced that wed be better off without it. Hume argued that without some feeling of what was then called sympathy for others, we would have no reason to be moral at all. As a utilitarian, Bloom argues that we dont need such emotional drivers, merely knowledge about what is best for the welfare of all and the rational capacity to work out how to achieve this. Yet unless we cared in some way about others, it is hard to see why this knowledge would motivate us to act. Nor is it as self-evident as Bloom claims that morality should be objective and fair, if that means taking a Gods-eye view and treating everyone equally. To make no distinction between family or loved ones and the rest of the world is not so much moral as inhuman.

Curiously, Bloom and Bazalgette often cite the same sources while reaching very different conclusions. (Bazalgette even quotes Bloom.) This difference in approach is most marked in their respective enthusiasm for brain scans. Bloom accepts they reveal worthwhile information but is wary that Nowadays, many people only seriously consider claims about our mental lives if you can show them pretty pictures from a brain scanner. Often, these add nothing significant to our understanding. It is hardly amazing to discover that there are brain processes involved in ethical thinking, for example. Moral deliberation has to be somewhere in the brain, after all, says Bloom. Its not going to be in the foot or the stomach.

A brain region activated by a certain activity might be no more functionally important than the little red LED that lights up when you turn on your TV
Bazalgette shows no such scepticism. His concluding Charter for Empathy starts by calling for the further mapping, as a priority, of the brains empathy circuit. No doubt this would be important scientific work, but it is not necessary for a more civil society.

Take his claim that Routine fMRI scans will identify psychopaths and others with an empathy deficit. That might sound plausible but 70 pages earlier Bazalgette himself reports the case of the neuroscientist James Fallon, who by chance discovered that his own fMRI scans matched those of a classic psychopath. This didnt mean he was a psychopath, but that psychopathy is a complex phenomenon that doesnt boil down to having a particular kind of brain. Brain scanning is too blunt an instrument to marshal in the cause of wholesale societal enhancement.

Bazalgette is writing as an engaged populariser, not as a dispassionate expert. Still, he would have benefited from reading Barbara J Sahakian and Julia Gottwalds Sex, Lies, and Brain Scans, which promises to tell us How fMRI Reveals What Really Goes On in Our Minds (another case of not allowing the truth to get in the way of what the marketing department think would be a good title). The book is actually a less sensational and therefore more valuable primer on what fMRI can and cannot tell us, at least at the moment.

A recurring theme is that there is rarely any discrete centre in the brain for any kind of complex function. The idea of an empathy circuit that underpins moral reasoning is therefore doubly misleading because the circuit is more of a network of circuits, and the link between these and moral reasoning is far from clear. Bloom claims research has suggested that there is no link between being good and being more empathetic, and nor is low empathy connected with violence. Sahakian and Gottwald write that we have not found a single brain area of morality that is not also active during other processes and that moral decision-making appears to reply on many parallel, co-operating systems and brain areas.

Even when patterns are found they tell us only about averages across many different brains and reveal very little about individuals, as Fallons psychopathic brain illustrates. Worse, most studies can establish only correlations, not causal relations, so it is hard to know how significant any link is. A brain region activated by a certain activity might be no more functionally important than the little red LED that lights up when you turn on your TV. All this means that were far off being able to use scans to diagnose psychopathy. Bazalgette is over-claiming when he says had we the benefits of todays diagnostic tools, chiefly fMRI scanners, we might have seen some serious abnormalities in the three dictators [Hitler, Stalin, Mao] brain functions.

Bloom is too forensic and careful for such speculative leaps but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he overstates the case, largely because he separates the rational and the emotional more completely than he should. Emotional empathy is certainly problematic when we rely entirely on it and give our rational minds the day off. But even in its everyday sense, people recognise the need for some kind of cognitive input into empathy. It is about head and heart working together, not trying to separate them. As Audrey says to the eponymous protagonist of the Coen Brothers film Barton Fink, empathy requires understanding. In different ways, neither Bazalgette nor Bloom seems to appreciate fully what this means.

The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society, by Peter Bazalgette, John Murray, RRP16.99, 384 pages

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by Paul Bloom, The Bodley Head, RRP18.99 / Ecco Press, RRP$26.99, 304 pages

Sex, Lies, and Brain Scans: How fMRI Reveals What Really Goes On in Our Brains, by Barbara J Sahakian and Julia Gottwald, Oxford University Press, RRP16.99, 176 pages

Julian Baggini is author of Freedom Regained (Granta)

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