I have been thinking about empathy and reading the psychologist Paul Bloom on this. Empathy is a type of bias – it evokes compassion for those close to us and to a lessor extent to those we can see but who need not be at all close to us in terms of actual ties – e.g. asylum seekers. It leaves unconsidered those facing peril in other countries (or awaiting resettlement in refugee camps in other countries) even though these people may face greater peril than asylum seekers. Of course we need to add reason and principles to considerations of empathy if we are to be truly ethical. Empathy can be a negative in terms of ethics – if I assign a high market to a friend in an exam or give them undue preference in a job interview that is a negative. If I have a serious illness and visit my doctor the last thing I want is empathy – I want the doctor to use his/her brains to help me not to sob in sympathy with my problem.
The negative side of empathy is the reason I cannot take the “Care Ethics” due to Carol Gilligan and the feminists very seriously. These thinkers do identify important determinants of individual ethics – close relationships – but, by themselves they are insufficient as a basis for ethics because of the implied biases.
Adam Smith – the greatest economist but perhaps a great figure in psychology as well – saw this distinction a long time ago. Would you be prepared to sacrifice millions of lives of people you have never seen for your little finger?
“Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them? Human nature startles with horror at the thought, and the world, in its greatest depravity and corruption, never produced such a villain as could be capable of entertaining it. But what makes this difference? When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble? When we are always so much more deeply affected by whatever concerns ourselves, than by whatever concerns other men; what is it which prompts the generous, upon all occasions, and the mean upon many, to sacrifice their own interests to the greater interests of others? It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct”.