Today I attended a very interesting lecture on the topic of empathy. It may seem strange at first blush: what’s to discuss? What’s to even think about? Empathy is good right? Like being kind, generous, forgiving, and generally a good person who treats others well, empathy seems like something we can and should take for granted as a sort of core tenet of life and human interactions, something that we can just accept as a foundation for how we’re supposed to act in the world, without any sort of examination. In fact, to even examine it might not only seem strange, but a bit grotesque and off-putting when brought up as a topic of inquiry.
But in fact, this seemingly innocuous subject and impulse may actually be at the root of many, if not most, of our most intractable social and political problems, and I am only now starting to appreciate this fact.
The topic was first brought to my attention, as many topics are, by author and intellectual Sam Harris. In this episode of his podcast from 2015, Sam interviews Yale psychologist Paul Bloom about the research that led to his 2016 book Against Empathy. Bloom argues that rather than enhance our moral understanding and decision-making, empathy may actually interfere with it, distort it, and even steer it towards unforeseen if not immoral actions and consequences. I will say more about this podcast in a later essay, but for now, let us return to today’s fascinating lecture by Deborah Nelson.
Professor Nelson is a professor of English and chair of the English department at the University of Chicago, where she studies late 20th-century US culture and politics. The local University of Chicago Alumni Association in Minneapolis brought her in to speak about her latest book, Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil, which “focuses on six women whose work coheres in a style and philosophical viewpoint that challenges the preeminence of empathy as the ethical posture from which to examine pain.” The lecture was advertised as such:
TWIN CITIES HARPER LECTURE: AN UNSENTIMENTAL EDUCATION
Empathy has been receiving a lot of attention recently, its importance urged not only in national politics but also in the workplace, schools, between friends, and among strangers.
But what if we are wrong? What if empathy isn’t what we need, but unsentimentality? This talk by Deborah Nelson describes the ethics and aesthetics of unsentimentality as practiced by some of the late 20th century’s most notable women artists and intellectuals: Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, and Simone Weil. Drawing upon her recent book, Tough Enough, Nelson will consider what it would mean to have an ethics without empathy even in the face of extreme suffering.
Needless to say, I would find this topic fascinating even if I had not previously discovered it in a podcast. It has a wonderful sense of counter-intuitiveness that seems ripe to make one examine previously unquestioned premises.
Professor Nelson began her lecture with a discussion of the recent popularity of empathy in our news, business, and politics. She showed us a few recent headlines, including an article from the Harvard Business Review entitled Empathy: The Most Valuable Thing They Teach at HBS. A quick search of the HBR turns up a plethora of articles on empathy. Next, she showed a headline from the New York Times addressing president Trump’s first attack on Syria in retaliation for the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians entitled On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First. [Searching for this, you find that, perhaps a topic worthy of its own discussion, that the New York Times has changed the title of that article, although you can still find the original title here, and a scathing critique of that article here, which I guess indicates some blowback from left wing political circles. Thank you, Internet.] Finally, she showed a headline discussing what is starting to be understood as “empathy fatigue,” a term and analysis I am unfamiliar with, but which makes intuitive sense when you take a few moments to think about the sorts of issues that have dominated our news in the last few years, including but not limited to the refugee crisis, police shootings and Black Lives Matter, and the MeToo movement. Upon reflection, it is apparent how empathy as an analytical tool has taken off as a means to understand our world, and, for better or worse, to reach policy decisions.
Professor Nelson then discussed the genesis of her book, which was to analyze 20th century historical and intellectual figures in the context of an ethic of unsentimentality and their own public controversies with the subject of empathy. She did not set out to write a book solely about women, but she found that it was almost impossible to find a male public intellectual who had been through such a controversy, yet another topic worthy of its own discussion. She weaves the various writings and analyses of these intellectuals with their own personal stories, perhaps ironically drawing our interest in these figures through our own empathy with them.
One extremely interesting foundation of this discussion is the origin of the concept of empathy as an analytical tool and part of our lexicon. Surprisingly, the origins of the word have nothing at all to do with feeling the perspective of another human being. Contrary to intuition, empathy has not always existed as a concept for how to interact charitably with other human beings. Historically, moral philosophers tended to use the words “sympathy” and “compassion” for how to approach treating others with kindness. The term empathy itself came into existence in the 19th century as a scientific term, intended to express literal mirroring of physical states in the natural sciences. As the 20th century emerged, it evolved into yet another meaning with which most of us are probably not familiar, as an aesthetic term used to analyze the quality of art. I’m not quite sure that I understand the exact nature of this use of the word, but from what I gather it was meant to express not a subject-object sensation where the observer feels the perspective of say another person represented artistically, but rather that the art expressed a reality of the object. My understanding is that the word was used as a measure of the quality and truthful representation of the art. In any case, the modern sense of the word “empathy” did not evolve until well after the second world war, taking hold sometime in the 1960s. This historical understanding alone is somewhat revelatory if not revolutionary for our modern understanding, as it demonstrates that empathy is not a fixed and eternal element of our moral understanding and landscape. In fact, not even a very long-existing one. I expect to chew on that alone for some hours in the coming weeks.
In the meat of her discussion, Professor Nelson examined the historical trajectory of our modern concept of empathy, partly by analyzing that modern concept, and partly through exploring some of the details of the lives and work of the women in her book. The overall theme was that these women, each in their own way, took what was probably an unconventional view about moral analysis, in the sense that this sort of work should be done with an ethic of unsentimentality, rather than empathy, for several reasons.
One reason is that empathy, rather than guiding us to proper moral actions and conclusions, can do just the opposite, because the reality of human hard wiring is that we are designed to be empathetic to people who look like us, who are near us, who we find more physically or personally attractive, etc., so that rather than decrease tribalism, it can, and perhaps most often does, increase it. An example would be that one might feel great empathy for the dead and wounded soldiers of one’s own army or country, but little to none for the injured and suffering of one’s enemy, and in fact one’s empathetic intuitions may lead in the opposite direction to antipathy or contempt.
Another reason is simply the fixed limits of our understanding and ability to process the information required to understand the world in an empathetic way. Professor Nelson spoke for some time about the attempt for the world to process the events of World War II, to even find language and concepts for it, let alone to actually understand what had happened. I was not aware, but even going into the 1960s, there was not a robust published body of analysis of the Holocaust, and in fact it was not until the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 that such work began on any scale. Hannah Arendt was not even able to find a publisher for her groundbreaking work Eichmann In Jerusalem for some time because of a perceived lack of interest. Looking back, it seems almost appalling that the world could go more than a decade without seriously examining the Holocaust, but perhaps this expectation that we would have now of an immediate dissection of this issue reflects how hard it is for us to understand the enormity of this catastrophe for those living in that time. How do you process the scale of the deaths of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands dying in a single day or in one attack, let alone tens of millions dying in the totality of the war? Which brings us back to the limits of empathy, even in its best case, its best use, its best outcomes, and its best intentions. We simply do not have the mental machinery to process empathy on a scale of more than a handful of people, let alone for any truly important and tragic event. Or, as someone once said: “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.”
In light of the problems with and limits of empathy, it’s a compelling point that perhaps our moral philosophy should be guided by unsentimentality rather than empathy. Professor Nelson examined how her subjects strove to understand the world and morality through an understanding of facts that we can know with our senses and analyze abstractly, rather than with emotional connections to the people we wish to help or wish we could have helped. In doing so, these women received their share of criticism, which I suspect would very likely happen to anyone making such an argument today, whatever their gender or identity.
This was an excellent lecture, and I can’t wait to buy the book. One quote that I found interesting at the end of the lecture was from one of Professor Nelson’s subjects saying something along the lines that “Pain shows us the limits of ourselves.” In other words, pain tells us that we are not the world, that reality and other people exist beyond us, and that there are limits to not only our selves, but our impact on the world. I can’t imagine a more unsentimental note to end on, and I encourage you to find a copy of her book and see what it can teach you for your own understanding of morality.