History, history of thought, and ethics
Attacking the Rich

David Brooks has it right on "The Limits of Empathy"

Mark D. White

In his column in today's New York Times, David Brooks explores "The Limits of Empathy," arguing that empathy may help us feel for other people, but it is not enough to actually spur us to action and help us make tough ethical decisions, and in the end may amount to little more than a self-satisfying crutch:

These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.

Brooks is right when he says people need something more to actually move them to action, some sense of duty or commitment--a code, in his terms:

Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them. The code tells them that an adulterer or a drug dealer may feel ecstatic, but the proper response is still contempt.

But that still leaves the question: why should we presume someone is moved to action more reliably by a code than by empathy? Brooks' answer is spot on:

The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow. If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes. Accept that codes conflict.

A person's code is part of his or her identity, and our interest in maintaining our identity as moral persons can prompt us to moral action and guide us in instances of struggle and temptation. I'm not sure if Brooks was implying this, but while adhering to a code certainly does arouse emotions, those emotions should not be the primary motivating factor behind it. (As Kant wrote, we should feel good because we're moral, but we should not be moral simply because it feels good.)

To be fair, I think empathy is enough to motivate some people to moral action, and it is essential for any moral system to work. But Brooks is right to point out that empathy is at risk of becoming a buzzword, a verbal lapel ribbon for those who wish to appear to care for other people without having to back it up with action.


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Excellent post, Mark. Brooks never addresses where codes come from. Adam Smith argues they come from an intellectual engagement with the impartial spectator in our minds, and by much trial and error.

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