Is Empathy True?

Third post of fairly heavy philosophy. Will try to balance it soon with some political polemic and possibly a post on the philosophy of cuteness.

In my last post, I tried to explain why I think that empathetic ways of thinking of other conscious persons, and their conscious lives, is not just a different feeling or motive added on to non-empathetic ways of thinking, but is cognitively different, i.e. a completely different sort of belief.

I’m really not sure how far I managed to do that, since thinking about how we think, and especially thinking about how we think about thinking, is hard. But in summary: in non-empathetic thinking, the object of our thought in the other person, while in empathetic thought, our object is actually the object of their thought.

E.g. if person X is frightened of thing Y, then my coming to believe this involves a thought directed onto Y, not onto X. Just as ‘I’ am present in the thought, but not as an object, so X is not present as an object, but as a viewpoint, a perspective on the world.

Anyway, rather than spilling any more words I’m going to assume that if people still have no idea what I’m talking about they’ll tell me.

What I want to talk about now is why, given that empathy and all the forms of non-empathy are different cognitions, one is true and one is false. None of these arguments is entirely knock-down, because the whole debate is so loose you’ll always have room to dodge any point. But to me they make a lot of sense.

(I’m going to call the non-empathy umbrella ‘objectification’ because it involves a mental object, and because the word has conveniently negative connotations, and because I think it’s obviously a prerequisite for the sort of things usually called ‘objectification’.)

(I like the idea of a non-empathy umbrella too – empathy for other people is like rain, i.e. messy and inconvenient but also pervasive and vital for life).

Ok, right, so. Two reasons why empathy is true and objectification is false.

Firstly: to treat a person’s thoughts as properties of an object involves significantly changing their content, away from the content they have as thought by the other person. When they think some thought, they themselves are the subject, i.e. the ‘general limit of the world’, and not some object in it – just like the eye is not visible in the visual field, but has a different sort of presence there. So by objectifying them, you adjust how the thought in question is constructed.

But the point of truth is to adhere as closely as possible to the thing being thought about – any change in how it’s represented from how it really is, makes something less true. Hence empathy, which avoids this change, is truer than objectification.

Secondly, note that objectification isn’t quite complete as I’ve described it above. I would argue that in order to represent the other person as having a mental state at all, it needs to actually construct that mental state, make a sort of simulacrum. I can’t think of a better way to make this argument than to poste verbatim from the aforesaid conference paper. If you’re willing to take my word for it, you can skip the 400 blue words.

The argument begins with the premise that behaviourism is false – a 2nd-order thought is not a thought about behavioural inputs and outputs. Moreover, I will assume that it is because we each have a mental life, that we are able to think about the mental lives of others. To use the very simple example of colour vision: I know that, and how, you seeing ‘blueness’ goes beyond a mere behavioural disposition (setting aside how sure I can be that you are seeing ‘blueness’), and I know this because I myself have seen blueness and know what it looks like.

Now to these broadly anti-behaviourist premises I will add one that I think is pretty much analytic: for a mental state to be about something, it must contain within itself sufficient ‘resources’ to identify its object, and distinguish it from other possible objects. Otherwise, in virtue of what would it have that object and not another?

Putting these together tells us that a 2nd-order mental state must contain sufficient ‘resources’ to identify the mental states of another person, as opposed to their behavioural dispositions. But what is it that enables this identification? We gave the answer just a moment ago – it is our own mental experiences that we draw on (or extrapolate from).

So in some form that content, our own experience, is a part of any 2nd-order thought. But in what form? It seems there are two options. Either a) it is present as a 1st-order token of the relevant type, or b) it is present as a further 2nd-order thought about my past experiences, e.g. “they are feeling now how I was feeling last Friday morning”.

Option b) may well be correct much of the time, but it cannot always be true, and cannot be the primary analysis of 2nd-order thought. Why? Because it is itself 2nd-order – so we must ask how it can refer to my past experiences, and not my past behaviours. If we stick with it, it will just lead us to an infinite regress.

So in the primary case, we must conclude that option a) is correct: a 2nd-order thought about a thought of type T, must contain as one component a 1st-order thought of type T. My primary understanding of ‘X is angry’ contains a token of anger; my primary understanding of ‘X believes that P’ contains a token of ‘P’.

So just to be cognitively adequate at all, thoughts about other people have to take the first step towards empathy. But in objectified thoughts, these ‘re-creations’ of the other person’s mental state are ‘suppressed’, in the sense that they are held before the mind but not allowed to have any of their natural affective or motivational effect – a re-creation of sadness doesn’t make you sad, a re-creation of desire doesn’t get you to try and satisfy it (as it would do in the case of empathy).

Now, this is the same sort of process that we perform on things like fictions and fantasies – we formulate the idea that we’re trapped somewhere with a murderous predatory alien that wants to destroy our skull with the second mouth that’s on the rod that comes out of its mouth, but we avoid barricading the doors and loading a gun. We keep the thoughts ‘in a box’ because they’re not real.

So, the second argument is this: that objectification involves treating the other person’s thoughts (which we have recreated) the same way we treat imaginary thoughts, the same way we treat the doings and thoughts of characters in books. To not empathise, in short, is to implicitly suppose that the consciousness of others is not really real, but is more like a fun story to imagine.

But that’s not true, is it?

I think if I were presented with these arguments just out of nowhere they wouldn’t convince me: I’d be inclined to suggest that, well, neither is true, neither is false, they’re just different emotional attitudes to take.

Which is why I consider it so important that empathy and objectification are different cognitions: that is, they are different things-that-can-be-true, and this means they are in conflict. Cognition is where we make choices between alternative ways of thinking, and call the ones we should prefer ‘true’ and the other ones ‘false’.

If empathy and objectification are cognitively different then one is true and the other false, because they can’t both be accepted as equal. The considerations I’ve tried to present here – that objectification involves 1) representations that are less similar to what is represented, and 2) treating other people’s minds like fictional objects, interesting and useful to think about but not actually real – are meant to tip the balance and give us good reason to think that it’s empathy which is true, and not objectification.

The consequence of which is, that anyone who fails to act for the benefit of others where possible, and willingly inflicts unnecessary suffering and destruction on them, is not just wicked, but irrational, and the victim of a factual delusion.

7 Responses to “Is Empathy True?”

  1. Mute Fox Says:

    You weren’t kidding when you said it was heavy. *scratches head* I decided to include my thoughts on your last post in this comment, as well, since that post laid the groundwork for this one.

    From what I could understand…aww hell, I may as well be honest. I really couldn’t understand most of it. I attribute this more to my lack of education in philosophy than any failure to adequately explain on your part. I caught some snatches that made sense, though. Like this:

    “Firstly: to treat a person’s thoughts as properties of an object involves significantly changing their content, away from the content they have as thought by the other person. When they think some thought, they themselves are the subject, i.e. the ‘general limit of the world’, and not some object in it – just like the eye is not visible in the visual field, but has a different sort of presence there. So by objectifying them, you adjust how the thought in question is constructed.

    But the point of truth is to adhere as closely as possible to the thing being thought about – any change in how it’s represented from how it really is, makes something less true. Hence empathy, which avoids this change, is truer than objectification.”

    That is indeed the point of truth – not to look at things in a way that is most convenient, but in a way that most closely matches what you really observe. We as humans are able to observe that other beings which we classify as human have roughly similar thoughts and feelings, such that we can share a common language and (as you demonstrated) recreate the experience of what we see them go through from our own perspective. So we assume (rightly) that “blueness” is pretty much the same experience for everyone, as is sadness or happiness or any other experience. When we see another person looking at a blue object, or acting depressed, or acting happy, we re-create that experience in our own minds and thus “empathize.” Hope I got that part right.

    Then we have this:

    “So, the second argument is this: that objectification involves treating the other person’s thoughts (which we have recreated) the same way we treat imaginary thoughts, the same way we treat the doings and thoughts of characters in books. To not empathise, in short, is to implicitly suppose that the consciousness of others is not really real, but is more like a fun story to imagine.

    But that’s not true, is it?”

    This made sense to me (as a theory), I am just not sure how true it is, either. I agree that we have to try to prove that objectification is irrational, but what form does this error take, is the question. It seems counter-intuitive to me to assume that non-empathetic people are walking around convinced (even subconsciously) that everyone else and their feelings are just a fantasy. Or maybe it’s so close to the truth that it’s right in front of our noses, and thus hard to see. In any case, my brain hurts, now. Keep it up, though, Alderson. Someone has to do the philosophical heavy-lifting.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    That’s a pity, but of no great import; I’m not really sure what I was aiming for, and am at least glad to have thrown this out there. Each bit of feedback helps in the end.

  3. Pejar Says:

    I’m really not convinced about any of this. I’ll follow Mute Fox’s example and comment on both posts here.

    1. The concept of empathy.

    To start off with, your concept of empathy doesn’t ring true to me. You assume that the viewpoints of others are useful data in determining whether ‘the world is good’ or ‘the world is bad’. But surely this is a ridiculously reductionist viewpoint: If we’re looking at the world as a whole, we’d need to take into account the experiences of every living person (and quite possibly every non-person). Compared to the totality of these, the viewpoint of a single individual should barely influence us at all when it comes to ‘the world’.

    Instead, it makes sense to regard the experiences of others as useful on a more localised scale. A and B both see C’s experiences as evidence of how things are *for C*. The difference between them is how they react. Indeed, as an empirical matter I would say that this is the more usual function of empathy. When I feel happy for someone, my primary concern is not that they are showing the world to be good (after all, how could they counteract the experiences of all those suffering in the world?) but *that they are happy*.

    An alternate is to take the experiences of others in terms of how things are *for me*. If you are upset, I might be concerned because this means that the chance of me being hurt increases. If you are happy, I might also be happy because the chance of things going well for me increases. This seems much more like what you are describing, because here I am merging my viewpoint with that of another person. The problem is, an undue focus on this rather than the reflective attitude I explained above is basically the definition of sociopathy.

    The empathic person is concerned that others around them *are* happy more than *why* they are happy. This does not mean that they are unconcerned with the reasons why – it might impact how long they stay happy, it might impact the happiness of others, etc – but it does mean that they do not see the happiness (or otherwise) of others primarily in terms of what it says about the world. The same is also true of those who take pleasure in the pain of others. Both have a reaction to the feelings of others, and as such see others primarily as people in their own right. They are mirrors of each other.

    These contrast with sociopaths (usually also solipsists) who are not concerned with others as people, but only as indicators of how the world is likely to be *to themselves*. Perhaps ironically, these are the ones who will focus more on merging their viewpoints with others, rather than reacting to the feelings of others qua feelings of others.

    So, that’s a very roundabout way of saying that I completely disagree. Perhaps the completely disinterested scientist trying to understand the world would have more in common with the sociopath than either the empath or the sadist, but this certainly wouldn’t lead to empathy.

  4. Pejar Says:

    2. The rationality of empathy.

    Okay, let’s assume that you’re wholly right about empathy being a different kind of cognition. Your argument seems to be that we just can’t get a proper understanding of how other people think unless we adopt their viewpoint. Now, this certainly makes some sense – after all, they say you can’t catch a serial killer unless you start thinking like one. But note that even when the cops do start ‘thinking like the serial killer’, they don’t actually start serial killing. This means that they haven’t fully taken on his subjective POV.

    I think the most important conclusion to draw from this is that actually, sometimes it is best not to fully understand someone else. I would say that this is because other people have very different moral intuitions / values, which is completely distinct from their rational processes. But I’m going to play your game, and assume that actually serial killers act like they do because of a defect in reason. The point is, it would be *irrational* to try to understand them to the extent that we compromise our own rationality. It’s fine to try to understand them enough to thwart them, but its bad if we understand them enough that we start acting like them. So my problem here is that sometimes it is more rational not to try to know the truth about something, because it would impare our rationality more generally. To generalise, whenever we try to understand the less rational we risk actually becoming (or at least acting) less rational.

    This is a big problem for your concept of empathy, because it suggests that we should be very careful who we empathise with. Under my conception of empathy, however (as explained under 1 above), this is no problem at all. The difference can be explained thus: Say we know that someone is upset for an irrational reason. Under my conception of empathy, I can feel sorry that they are upset without overly worrying about the fact that there is no good reason. However under your concept of empathy, I must be wary of empathising because in seeing the world through their eyes, I risk becoming less rational myself. Better that I tell them that they are being irrational than that I indulge them. Tough love it may be; empathetic it is not.

    3. The meaning of rationality.

    This is less of a distinct concern, and more of a query. It seems that they way you are linking morality and rationality is rather novel. You seem to be suggesting that empathy is the best way to discover the truth about the universe, and that this is what gives it its moral force. Does this suggest that discovering truth is the first precept of the moral system this will construct? While this will often tie in with human welfare, I can certainly imagine situations where the two diverge…

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Re. 2.

    This is something that someone else has also said, and it surprises me, because the answer is very simple.

    Why do we not want to ‘take on’ the serial killer’s motivations and try to help them kill/kill people (depending what sort of motivations they actually have)?

    Because that is a very bad thing to do. Why?

    Because the victims have a more powerful motive to not be killed than the killer has to kill them (putting it mildly). If we empathise with the victim and serial killer equally, the former’s interests here outweigh the latter’s.

    So empathising with the serial killer is exactly what we should do – as long as we also identify with the victim. The upshot of doing both will be a motive to catch and incapacitate the killer (if, as I think we both assume, that’s the best course of action here morally) – but, note, combined with a certain sense of tragedy that someone’s happiness has been, in their own eyes at least, so closely tied to the death of someone else, a sense of compassion even as you seek to apprehend them, rather than a revulsion and demonisation of them as wholly other.

    What you’re saying seems to be analogous to ‘I know that this piece of scenery is a cardboard cut-out, because I made it, I know that it looks like a tree from the front and looks flat from the side. But I should avoid looking at it from the front, because then, seeing it as looking like a tree, I’ll make myself less rational.’

    The very reason why you already know that looking at matters from x point is view is looking at them badly and confusedly, is why taking that viewpoint won’t, as you say, ‘impair your rationality’.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Re. 3.

    “You seem to be suggesting that empathy is the best way to discover the truth about the universe, and that this is what gives it its moral force.”
    I don’t think I’d quite say that. I’d prefer to say that empathy is the best way to discover the truth about what has moral force. The moral force itself comes from the object empathy, i.e. people’s desires, suffering, etc.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Re. 1.

    “If we’re looking at the world as a whole, we’d need to take into account the experiences of every living person (and quite possibly every non-person). Compared to the totality of these, the viewpoint of a single individual should barely influence us at all when it comes to ‘the world’.

    Instead, it makes sense to regard the experiences of others as useful on a more localised scale.”

    I see your point. I had been thinking that ‘the world’ carried the implicit qualification ‘this bit of it’, i.e. these objects, these actions, this situation. I spoke of it being ‘about the world’ because I think whenever we perceive a determinate object or space or situation or anything, we do so by raising as a ‘figure on a ground’, we see it against the background of the world. I wanted to bring out that in empathy we take people’s thoughts to be directed onto the same basic thing as ours, but perhaps I should have emphasised more that, where empathy can influence action, onto the same specific things, especially actions. The action that terrifies person C is the same action that person A is contemplating.

    So this is a sort of localisation, but not the same sort that you propose when you say

    “A and B both see C’s experiences as evidence of how things are *for C*. The difference between them is how they react.”
    So I just want to ask what you think the meaning of this ‘how things are for C’ is – how does it relate to the broader cognitive capacities of the mind?

    Because one option is that ‘how things are for C’ is something analogous to ‘how things look visually from the northwest corner’. Now in this case, if C perceives a certain action as terrifying or agonising, i.e. as very very bad, then anyone perceiving C in this way, will be motivated to avoid that action, because they have come to know that ‘from a certain angle’ that action is very very bad, and this is a real aspect of the self-same action they contemplate, just as different angles give different real visual aspects of the self-same thing I see.

    Another option is that ‘how things are for C’ is something analogous to ‘how things are in the Star Trek universe’. Here, I can make loads of claims, and they can be true or false, and they can be interesting or not, but 1) I have a lot of control over how they affect my feelings and actions, indeed I can ignore them entirely just because I want to, and 2) this is because the objects I’m thinking about (the Enterprise, Picard, the sexual tension between Kirk and Spock, the moment when the Dominion fleet came through the wormhole, etc.) aren’t real. Relatedly, they are not part of the world – they are perceived against the background of another world, a fictional one.

    But that option is false: C’s thoughts are real, they are part of this world and not a fictional one (especially not that fictional ‘in the head’ world).

    Or there might be a third option that’s neither. But I don’t really know what it could be.


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