Empathy April 2020

Empathy seems to motivate some of the best and worst aspects of life. On one hand, you would think that “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” would be strictly a good thing. On the other hand, the options for the scope of that understanding and feeling sharing do not seem to scale well. It’s not that conservatives are less empathetic, or liberals more, it’s that conservatives and liberals choose to empathize on a different scale. You could argue that conservatives empathize fiercely with their in-group, at the family or community level. You could argue that liberals (attempt) to empathize with all people equally, or the less fortunate more so.

Empathy seems to be the source of a great deal of violence. If you empathize with your family, but not with your community, what impact would it have? It would probably have a game theory reinforcing impact, where you assume that the community is out to get you and protect yourself from them. If you empathize with your friends but not with your parents, presumably respect would flow to your friends but not to your parents. If you empathize with everyone on earth, you may spread any amount of positive impact you can have too thin and end up doing nothing. It’s not possible to empathize with the victim and the bully, you are ultimately choosing sides.

It seems like much war is actually motivated by empathy. If you kill my family, is it not a reasonable response to go to war against you as a result of my empathy for them? If I don’t go to war, am I really doing much to empathize with my dead family? If I empathize with the enemy, won’t I end up tremendously guilty and conflicted? What if I empathize with the other soldiers but not with their government? The purpose of these examples is to show that empathy is probably a flawed system that leads people to believe their actions are moral when in fact they are motivated by a poorly scaled and violence inducing system we think means to understand.

If we understood what it meant to benefit another person, in a way that served only that other person and not ourselves, what would we actually spend our time doing? Would we become a politician or community organizer and consolidate power (and take credit) for good things? Would we lock ourselves in a room (not very empathetic of our family and friends) but spend all our waking hours developing technology to allow people greater quality of life with less resources? Which of those things is closer to a moral and good act? Which is more effective?

It seems like the most important consideration when it comes to empathy is to remember some constants. It is not possible to empathize with everyone, in doing so, you likely understand and share feelings with almost no one. We are wired to want in-groups and outgroups, even humanists consider conservatives (the ones who empathize with their family, which seems reasonable) to be evil and “other” them. So it appears that no one is above in-grouping and no one has the ability to empathize with “humanity”. The only reasonable conclusion is that empathy doesn’t scale, and the more you try to scale it, the more violence you end up creating.

It seems like one of the few ways to make the world better (in a sense that it doesn’t seem to have any harmful second or third order side effects) is to reduce violence. Most violence is retributive, meaning someone starts it, everyone gets sucked in, and eventually you forget who started it or why you’re doing it in the first place. Which would be a strong argument for pacifism if not for the game theory problem. The problem being if everyone were a pacifist, someone would break rank and gain an unfair advantage by being violent. You would want to make sure the downsides to being violent remain much greater than the upsides to being violent. Throwing people in jail requires a real suspension of empathy, unless you consider who the empathy is for. Empathy is for all the non-violent people who are doing the right thing all the time. If you empathize with the violent, you end up with a very strange intellectual death spiral that leads to a sort of numbing nihilism. There is no way around in-grouping, and no way to scale empathy.

Another way to make the world better, for yourself and the small in group you choose to empathize with, would be to reduce the violence among that group. If you could reduce the interfaces you have with the violent, and become self sufficient, as well as policing and reducing the amount of violence experienced by those in the in group, you’d come as close to the ideal of understanding and sharing the feelings of others without those feelings being harmful and traumatic. This is pretty much why nation states exist. The problem with nation states is the scaling problem, it’s valid to want to make life better for your in-group, but hundreds of millions of people are much too large an in-group to meaningfully keep in our heads. Which I think is why politicians end up being people who like taking credit for good as opposed to doing it.

It seems like modern culture is going to end itself when it stops being able to agree about who deserves empathy. Having already written off anyone competent and successful, it seems like the only path would be to stop empathizing with the bottom 99% of people. It’s impossible to continue to empathize with the 99% in the abstract sense, because the more you do it, the more it seems to lead to harmful and violent side effects. It’s remarkable how often history repeats the process of inequality being born of progress and equality being born of violence. Without violence, how would you enforce equality? Is one’s lack of success born of violence?

There is simply no way to tear down the most resourceful people without turning off your ability to understand and share feelings. If you reduce the violence in society, the most resourceful people will again begin to work towards progress and wealth creation. If Jeff Bezos being so wealthy is a problem in practice, why does everyone buy things from Amazon? If you don’t buy things from Amazon, how does the fact that other people do harm you? If you were going to take Jeff’s money away and give it to other people, how would you do that in a way that reduced the violence in the world? If the only way to redistribute Jeff’s money is by a force of violence so strong it conquers the force of his competence, is that right? What happens when the money has been redistributed, who will continue to apply the violence force that will ensure Jeff doesn’t go about making his money back through resourcefulness? To empathize with the poor to the exclusion of empathizing with the competent is to hate yourself for not being resourceful.

It’s interesting to see people treat successful people like high school bullies, as though the trauma brought about by intentionally picking on the weak somehow carries forward into the economy where, by definition, things that people want are rewarded. It would take an enormous amount of violence to bring true equality of outcome to a place like modern Western culture. So much violence in fact you would pretty much have to tear down the entire economy. Because the economy is a complex system which on balance benefits all participants, you are pretty much accepting an enormous amount of actual physical violence to reduce dependencies. Not only did Venezuela fail to bring about equality, they succeeded in violenting reducing the quality of life of what could have been one of the richest countries in the world. We are one or two empathetic generations of pluralism (as in, empathy for everyone but those more successful than me in the first person sense) away from completely destroying our ability to bring about inequality in the first place. The only thing worse than inequality would be the acts you would need to commit to build an equal world. That would be truly horrific, and fundamentally wrong.

Empathy can be a force of good. Empathizing with our future children so that we can fix the problems we’ve created in natural systems seems like an enormously positive force of good. Empathizing with the incompetent so that we can systematically tear down the competent and replace them with people who like to be seen as good (as opposed to doing it) is an enormously negative source of harm. If you imagined a world in which there was almost no empathy, you would end up with an enormously efficient trade based system. People would empathize with those they require in their immediate proximity for survival. Everyone else would be seen as a potential enemy and trading partner. It sounds worse in practice, but we already do this with boogeyman countries like China and Russia, it’s not a stretch to imagine it for other out-groups.

The most striking example of the significance of empathy and the extent to which we convince ourselves of our own moral purity is the trolley problem. Picture a trolley speeding down a hill, heading towards a group of people. You have the option of pulling a lever, and saving some people, perhaps a greater number. If you believe Dunbar’s number, where we can only have meaningful relationships with 150 people, imagine the trolley is heading for the lowest 10 people on that list (people you work with, old friends from high school and such). Still, people you care about, maybe more once than you do now, and 10 of them. Imagine the other track has your one and only child. Would you pull the lever, saving nine lives you would claim without hesitation to empathize with? I’ve only been a parent for a few years, but I would not pull the lever. I would argue that is a more honest interpretation of my likely behavior, as opposed to a more cruel one. I would argue that almost all people would not pull the lever, and they would not regret it either. If we can’t empathize with our own real relationships, how can we empathize with the world?

Even giving the climate example of empathy for our future kids, I worry about the implications something like that has. How much violence, short term thinking, overspending, power taking, irrational beliefs and fear mongering could we tolerate if the future of humanity was on the line? Even in that example, so much bad can be born of the good if we’re not mindful to focus on reducing violence rather than increasing empathy. If we empathize with our current selves, and spend ourselves into bankruptcy, we will find that a world in which there are no resources left ends up being the most violent of all. We are basically buying a reduction of violence now with resources we need to reduce violence in the future. We’ll see how that experiment ends. Until then I’m going to empathize with as few people as I meaningfully can, and focus on being the least violent version of myself that I can be. Knowing we’re all capable of harm despite good intention is half the battle. The other half is accepting that you cannot be morally pure, cannot love everyone as gods claim to, and cannot truly empathize with more than a few dozen people.