Saturday, January 5, 2019

Notes on Reason and Empathy

Have you ever noticed how some people will get all red-faced and blustery, and then say, “I think with logic, not emotion!!” I've heard that several times recently, and I'm always curious about what they mean. They must not think all emotions are contrary to logic, or they would see the contradiction in angrily declaring how logical they are. Maybe anger doesn't seem like one of the soft, squishy emotions to them, so they think it can't affect their logic (though of course it can). No, the emotions they seem to have in mind are the “softer” ones...particularly empathy. Lots of people seem to think think the less empathy they have, the more reasonable or logical they will be. Put another way, they think a hard head requires a hard heart.

I want to explain why I think they're wrong, but first I should acknowledge the grain of truth in their thinking. It's true that empathy (as well as other emotions, like anger) can push reason aside. If you give your life savings to a homeless person because you feel sorry for them, then empathy has clearly overrun reason. There's also the well-known logical fallacy called the appeal to pity. If a juror thinks, "The defendant was abused as a child, therefore he didn't rob that store", that's clearly bad reasoning. So, there's no doubt that empathy can clash with reason, just as any emotion can. But I think the folks who claim that a lack of empathy makes them more reasonable are mistaken, for a couple of reasons.

First, they weren't that logical in the first place. Most of them wouldn't know a syllogism from Shinola. Second, studies have shown that people with emotional impairments caused by brain injuries can become quite irrational. They make bad decisions, apparently because they can't assign the proper emotional weight to different outcomes. I can be a little too coldly analytical myself, and I know I've made that kind of mistake. Finally, I think they're wrong because reason and empathy can help us accomplish the same thing: finding truth.

Finding truth is clearly one of the main purposes of reasoning. Being reasonable just means having good reasons for what you believe or do. You don't just believe things willy-nilly, or because they make you feel good. You believe them because you have good reasons to think they're true. Your conclusions are true (or at least highly plausible) because they follow logically from premises which are also true or highly plausible. Reasoning is a kind of truth-seeking.

To show how that relates to empathy, I need to say what I mean by truth. Defining truth is a messy business that philosophers have argued about for millennia, but I think most people would agree that a belief is true if it accurately reflects reality. If there's an elephant in front of me, and I think, “That's an elephant in front of me”, then what I think is true. Simple enough. I don't think that's the only kind of truth (as I'll explain below) but it's certainly a crucial kind. It's been fashionable recently for people to say they don't believe in this kind of truth, but they still get plenty mad when they're lied to, so I think they believe in it more than they let on.

Now, how does all that relate to empathy? Empathy is also a reflection of reality. When you feel empathy for someone, you're imagining what they're feeling, and doing so by feeling a little bit of it yourself. Your experience is a pale reflection of theirs. So, if truth is an accurate reflection of reality, and empathy is feeling what another person is feeling, then could empathy be a kind of truth? I think so. After all, if we're empathizing well, we're experiencing an accurate reflection of reality. It's another person's internal, subjective reality, but surely that's a "real" reality. If you disagree, would you be willing to say your internal experience isn't real? I know mine is plenty real to me.

Anyway, that's why I think empathy is a path to truth, just like reason is. In fact, in some ways it's a more profound path, because it goes beyond mere description. Most of the time, when we talk about truth, we're talking about a description or picture of the world. If I describe the fact that there's a chocolate cake on the table in front of me, and there really is, then my description is true. But description has its limits, because there are some things it can't convey. Describing a chocolate cake to a person who's never had chocolate won't tell them what the cake tastes like. The only way they'll know that is by tasting it. The taste will give them a different, and more direct, kind of truth about the cake.

Similarly, if empathy is feeling what another person feels, then it's more like the “tasting” kind of truth than the “describing” kind of truth. And it's a lot more profound than tasting a cake, because it's not just a fleeting pleasure, but a way of understanding the experience of another person. Empathy takes us beyond ourselves, makes us larger, and helps us behave morally. It pushes us to give the proper emotional weight to another person's predicament, and see that their feelings and hopes are just as real to them as ours are to us.

Interestingly enough, reason can do the same thing. Some of the folks who get all angrily “logical” are the same ones who have trouble feeling empathy for people who aren't like them—people with different religions, or languages, or nationalities. I suspect that's an innate human tendency. For some reason it can be harder to empathize with those who aren't like us. Maybe it's harder imagining being in such different shoes? Maybe it's biological? Whatever the causes, this failure of empathy has caused untold pain and suffering throughout history. Luckily, this is a case where reason can come to the rescue. If we put our knee-jerk, tribal emotions to the side and really think about it, there's no reason to think a person's hope, fears, pleasures, and pains are any less real than ours just because they're different from us.

Both reason and empathy, then, tell us we should see people as humans whose lives are just as important to them as ours are to us. That's why I think empathy should be reason's partner, not its enemy. Reason is about finding truth, and so is empathy, because it's a way of directly experiencing the truth of other people's lives. Sure, empathy without reason can cause problems, but so can reason without empathy. So how about we stop thinking of reason and empathy as opposed to each other? That just makes people think they need to pick one or the other, when they really need both. We all need both, and the sooner we realize it, the better off we'll all be.

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