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Psychic Numbing

By Jonathan B. Wight

Two items in the New York Times recently caught my eye.

Arthur Brooks, of the American Enterprise Institute, asks us to overcome our cynicism and psychic numbing by focusing on small solutions (“To Make the World Better, Think Small”).  When the world at large is going to hell, see if there is one thing you can do: “When it comes to people in need, one million is a statistic, while one is a human story.”

China earthquakeHe says he gets this insight from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, in the passage about the earthquake in China that swallows up a hundred million.  The European who slumbers soundly on learning of this calamity is drawn into action when his moral imagination is aroused:  what if he could save them—or even one—by sacrificing his little finger? Moral imagination and sympathy are thus a tool to help us overcome cynicism and apathy.

Yet in another exchange, “Does Empathy Guide or Hinder Moral Action?”, Paul Bloom, the noted psychologist, disagrees.  He notes that:

“Empathy acts like a spotlight, focusing one's attention on a single individual in the here and now. This can have positive effects, but it can also lead to short-sighted and unfair moral actions. And it is subject to bias — both laboratory studies and anecdotal experiences show that empathy flows most for those who look like us, who are attractive and who are non-threatening and familiar….A good policy maker makes decisions using reason, aspiring toward the sort of fairness and impartiality empathy doesn't provide.”

Bloom goes on to identify the distinction between empathy and compassion:

“Recent neuroscience studies, including some fascinating work on the power of meditation, show that compassion is distinct from empathy, with all its benefits and few of its costs.”

This is a great point, which really points us toward ethical pluralism.  We need empathy, but we also need Kantian and Utilitarian moral philosophies to carry us forward. 

Jamil Zaki argues against Bloom, noting that: 1) Sympathy is not only about sharing sentiments: it is about judging those sentiments to be appropriate to the circumstances.  It is not just fellow-feeling, there is moral judgment.  2) Emotions are not always as volatile and irrational as portrayed by Bloom. 3) Claiming that empathy is the only source of bias in policy making is ludicrous, since even those who claim to be proceeding on the basis of pure rationality have their own hidden biases:  “Enshrining pure logic to guide morality is naïve.”

Ultimately: “Emotion is woven into the fabric of our minds and that's a good thing. Although feelings alone don’t make us good people, they are key ingredients in our moral lives.”

Interesting points and the debate goes on!

Photo from: www.flickr.com/photos/wang_qian_021386/2492872838/


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