In the last episode, arguments were made as to why empathy is a bad moral compass, and why we would be better off if both individually and as a society we were morally driven by a rational compassion.Yet some naysayers may still be unconvinced. They might argue that I’m obsessing over things that in theory could go wrong with empathy-based decisions, but which aren’t really likely to go wrong in real life. Now it is time for me to establish that these problems are not mere theoretical hair-splittings, but very real problems with letting our decisions be driven by empathy.
Those who feel that an empathy deficit is at the heart of socially harmful behavior tend to focus a lot on cases where that explanation is likely. For example, on July 9, 2017, James Dunn, a disabled black man, drowned in a pond in Cocoa, Florida. A group of teenagers who possibly could have rescued him instead chose to stream the occurrence on the Internet, all the while shouting taunts at the drowning man. Many people treated this event as a sign of the times, a prime example of how the youths of America have undergone a decline in empathy.
Psychology Today even ran an article about this incident as part of a larger trend that also includes an alleged rise of bullying as though the prevalence of bullying were indeed verified to be something new. Not once in the article does it even touch on the issue of how the author knows that there is in fact a rise in the rate of bullying, as opposed to merely a rise in the rate of bullying being reported when it does happen.
However, while it is almost certain that the teens who could have rescued Mr. Dunn but didn’t lacked empathy for his plight – the conclusion that this was because they lacked empathy altogether is premature. It overlooks the possiblity that these teens have perfect empathy for those whom they identify with – but Mr. Dunn (possibly due to his disability) fell outside of their circle of empathy. Also – it ignores how, even without instilling them with empathy, they might have been motivated to do at least something to help Mr. Dunn if only they at least had a sense of civic responsibility. Then, witout any need to feel Mr. Dunn’s despair, they might have attempted to help out of the simple realization that that’s the right thing to do.
Still – though instilling these teens with a sense of civic responsibility would have likely been a better way to increase the odds of them doing anything to help Mr. Dunn, in this case it is still highly unlikely that any misdirected empathy actually caused them to treat him in such a barbaric manner. In other cases, however, empathy not only fails to be the best solution – but actually contributes to the problem.
For example, anyone who has any involvement in the campaign for transgender rights knows how some people are just terrified of the idea of a trans-woman using a women’s restroom or other women’s gender-segregated facilities. This is a serious issue for trans-women. Forbidding a trans-woman to use the facilities appropriate to the gender that she identifies not only is automatically an invalidation of her core identity (something that is already quite hurtful) but also puts her at an elevated risk of violence if she remains in public space long enough to have need for such facilities. Some might think that someone who would push for policies that impose such consequences on trans-women must be severely lacking in empathy.
The reality, however, is that they are not lacking in empathy, but that the plight of trans-women denied access to facilities appropriate to the self-identified gender merely falls outside of their scope of empathy. Instead, they are concerned that allowing trans-women to use gender-appropriate facilities will enable a predatory man to also enter the women’s facilities and thereby commit sexual abuse.
Of course, studies have shown that if trans-women are allowed access to gender-appropriate facilities, any added risk that this would impose of a predatory man entering the women’s facility would be so small as to be practically unmeasurable – whereas the risks imposed on the safety of trans-women if such access is denied tends to be quite substantial. However, the risk of a predatory man entering the women’s facilities to commit sexual abuse is still something that many people find relatable – while the plight of trans-women denied access to such facilities is not relatable to as many people.
When empathy is used in decision-making, the relatable risk, no matter how small, is always taken more seriously than the unrelatable risk, no matter how great. When one understands this detail of how empathy works, it is no surprise that many people will choose to put trans-women very tangibly in harm’s way if that’s what it takes to avert a microscopic, possibly even non-existent added danger to cisgender women. This is a prime example of how empathy not only fails to prevent a harmful decision – but actually drives a harmful decision.
Though the issue of transgender restroom access is the most current example of how empathy causes people to prioritize avoiding a risk that is relatively miniscule but relatable above avoiding another risk that is much greater yet not as relatable – many more examples of this effect are strewn thoughout history. It’s well known how this effect was a major driving force behind the Jim Crowe laws that for many years severely curtailed the rights of racial minorities in the United States, espcially in the South. Empathy might even drive someone to justify a practice as barbaric as slavery – if someone relates more to the inconveniences faced by someone who suddenly is compelled to manage their plantation without slave labor than to the extreme plight of those who’s entire lives and beings are subjected to the inhumane treatment that is slavery.
When one learns rational compassion, however, they accept that they may not be able to relate or wrap their heads around every hardship someone might face – let alone vicariously feel their anguish. However, upon accepting this, they realize that just because they can’t relate in such a manner to someone else’s suffering doesn’t make the suffering any less real or less valid – and doesn’t justify taking their concerns any less seriously than they would be taken if they were more relatable.
Upon coming to this acceptance, one might still want to assist someone who is suddenly faced, for the first time, with the prospect of having to manage their business without slave labor – but they will understand that continuing the brutal practice of slavery is not an acceptable means by which to do this. And of course they’d still wan to prevent a white woman from being raped by a black man – but they’d realize that subjugating the entire black population is not an acceptable means by which to do so. Furthermore, they will understand that the effort to prevent rape must not be limited to cases of a black man raping a white woman – but must extend to all cases of rape, regardless of the racial identity of the assailant or that of the victim. This includes cases of a black woman being raped by a white man.
And yes – most people should still want to protect cisgender women from being assaulted in women’s facilities by a predatory intruder. But they will realize that subjecting transgender women as a whole to a much more statistically real danger is not an acceptable means of doing this. Furthermore, they will understand that transgender women have just as much a need to be safe from such assaults as cisgender women do.
Last but not least – once we have moved from using empathy as our moral compass to using rational compassion instead, when a group of teenagers see a disabled black man drowning in a pond – they might still find him to be outside of their circle of empathy – but they will at least realize that they have an obligation to do what they can to assist him regardless of whether or not they feel for him.