studiodekadent Posted April 21, 2015 Share Posted April 21, 2015 You may have noticed recently that a lot of people are very into "empathy." The recent U VA/Rolling Stone rape hoax story, before it got discredited, caused people to protest outside the house of the accused fraternity; at least one banner waved by the protestors demanded that the fraternity develop more "empathy." The online Intersectional Social Justice movement (often referred to as "Social Justice Warriors") regularly demand that their opponents develop more "empathy." For many years, psychologists have describe the psychopathic and sociopathic in empathy-related terms, conceptualizing these conditions as a fundamental lack of empathy. The same argument is often made about those with Autism (a neurological condition which is demonstable via a brain scan) and also people on the so-called "autistic spectrum" (i.e. quirky and quiet people who don't have any objectively-demonstrable neurological difference from the general population, but are stigmatized as having Autism because they don't fit in with "normal" people). Our society often sees psychotic killers and predatory rapists as "inhuman" and rightly so. This judgment, however, is often extended towards anyone who is seen as having insufficient amounts of "feeling-ness" or "empathy" - make a statement about economic policy informed by economic reasoning rather than "compassion" and suddenly you're "inhuman" and engaging in "cold calculation." The Hellenic philosophers argued that reason was the essential characteristic of human beings; our ability to reason separated us from the other animals. Even with the many errors made by all the various Hellenics (including Aristotle on several matters), they placed reason at the very core of what-it-means-to-be-human. Yet these days, too much reason and insufficient "empathy" makes you a psychopath/sociopath/rapist/just-plain-horrible-person/cruel and therefore "inhuman." According to popular culture, reason is not the essence of human-ness; "feelings" and "empathy" and "compassion" (which popular culture seems to cast as the antithesis of rationality) are the core of humanity. What happened? How did this come about? As is basically obligatory for an Objectivist, I'll play the blame game. And as much as I respect the British Empiricists, it is they who appear to be responsible. Hume's "reason as the slave of the passions" argument obviously helped marginalize the role played by reason in the popular understanding of the human condition. But it was his overall theory of moral sentimentalism (developed by himself initially but further developed and defended by his student Adam Smith) which seems to have caused the most damage. Hume's theory is not without worth nor is it entirely negative in terms of its consequences; in many ways it represents an attempt to reverse the idea of Original Sin and fully bury the Hobbesian view of human nature. Hobbes argued that human beings were naturally predisposed towards cruelty and violence; according to Hobbes we are not merely capable of such things but inclined towards them. This was made culturally-palatable to many by the Christian worldview which placed evil at the core of human nature; the slaying of Abel by Cain is, after all, the second great transgression against God. Whereas Hobbes argued man was by nature cruel and prone to violence against his brethren, Hume and Smith argued the opposite; they noted that humans in general do not wish misfortune or cruelty upon their fellows and pointed out that if we were inclined to kill each other then humanity as a species would be extinct. We also possess a strong natural predisposition towards relating to each other's situations owing to seeing other people as fellow humans and thus fundamentally "like us" - ergo we see a cruelty towards fellow humans and imagine such a cruelty happening towards ourselves which leads us to oppose cruelty to each other on a generalized level. Instead of being naturally inclined towards cruelty, Smith and Hume argued we are naturally inclined towards benevolence. Instead of bearing the Mark of Cain, we bear a natural empathy. Smith and Hume's argument was built off common sense and empirical facts (clearly this natural benevolence exists in general and violent people are the exception rather than the rule), but they erred in how they argued this natural empathy was the source of all morality. By arguing that morality was an outgrowth of innate empathy, the (perhaps unintentional) effect was to dichotomize "moral" behavior from "rational" behavior. Hume's own "slave of the passions" argument only further enforced that dichotomization by casting reason as a purely instrumental faculty for achieving emotionally-selected ends, rather than as a faculty that could be used to discern proper ends. "Moral" became an issue of the passions and the reason-passion dichotomy played along nicely. Smith and Hume's concept of empathy was not necessarily devoid of rationality (a lot depends on how one interprets their work, after all), but their work clearly was part of the process which resulted in the creation of the concept of empathy we know today. This contemporary idea of empathy sees empathy as a completely emotional faculty; not a rational understanding of others as fundamentally like oneself owing to the fact of them being recognizably the same species, but rather a "just feeling" thing. Relating to the situations of others is simply not good enough unless you FEEL how they do, via some instinctual reflex. Comprehending that person X is a person like you, comprehending X's situation and imagining that X's situation is not one you would personally want to be in, and thus feeling sorry for and/or wanting to help X? No, that's not good enough! It isn't "real empathy." Its "cold" and "heartless" and "calculating" and too rational to really be "caring." "STOP UNDERSTANDING AND START FEELING!!!" they cry from the rooftop. And of course, if you're someone who actually understands one's feelings, has a rational temperament, believes in a Cognitivist theory of psychology, well then you "lack empathy" which means at the very least you have a neurological disease that makes you "anti-social" and at worst you're no different to Jeffrey Dahmer. After all, humans are (in this worldview) defined by a natural and completely-unrelated-to-reason "empathy" which is what stops them from being rapists and murderers. Rapists and murderers are of course inhuman, and if you aren't simply OVERFLOWING with FEELS then obviously you must be the same kind of person as these rapists and murderers; an inhuman. And probably only a hair's breadth away from chopping up tons of innocents. Were Hume and Smith alive today, I'd suspect they'd be rather critical about how their work has been taken to support this emotionalistic worldview, however that is mere speculation. Still, their work clearly seems to have contributed to the feelings-fetishism of today's empathy-ejaculating attitudes towards psychology; once, reason was seen as the core of humanity, but today reason is seen as inhuman and humanity is seen as the possession of some completely instinctive/reflexive and non-rational empathic faculty. Which means those who prefer to think rather than feel are not properly human and only a hop, skip and jump away from being psychotic killers. Hume and Smith unfortunately contributed (perhaps unintentionally) to this modern attitude. In that, they have done a disservice to our culture by intensifying our culture's denigration of reason. They may have attempted to bury the Hobbesian view of mankind, yet the practical consequence of their ideas (at least in how other people have interpreted their ideas) was to replace the image of the mindless violent brutish thug with the image of the cold and calculating serial killer who's Original Sin is a lack of "empathy." Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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