The limits of Empathy

(aka The best of intentions)

There is a very interesting trait that exists in most humans and many animals that we call empathy. This is the perceived ability to experience something from someone else's perspective. It forms the basis for many legal and moral codes, social relationships, and many forms of symbiotic relationships. It appears to be grounded in something called mirror neurons, and even plays a role in our ability to watch a movie and have an emotional experience. It has a huge problem however. We are not actually experiencing life from the other persons perspective, but rather how we would experience life if we were in their position. This difference is highly signficant.

Imagine that you see someone else in a situation that you would personally find quite distressing. (I leave it up to everyone to come up with their own examples.) You can see clearly that this is ruining their lives and you can also see clearly what steps they should take to alleviate this problem. You watch the problem escalate to the breaking point. You then decide that, as a person of conscience, the only decent thing you can do is to step forward and offer advice, a helping hand, some form of advocacy, a place to stay, etc. You screw up your courage and proceed, only to be soundly rebuffed.

Not only did they reject your offer for help, but they do not believe there is any problem on their end, that your offer is actually unwelcome interference in their lives, and that the true problem lies with your inability to let other people choose lives different than your own. That you, in fact, are simply a control freak busybody who needs to mind their own business.

"Well, that certainly did not go as planned", you think. You assume there must be some sort of communication problem because certainly you meant no harm at all and were really trying to help. Surely if you explained this, their eyes would be opened and they would see the purity of your intentions. You try that approach. It also does not go well. The end of this little drama is frequently the complete dissolution of the relationship as both parties wash their hands of each other forever.

So what went wrong?

In a word, empathy.

Empathy is an illusion. It is an effective illusion that generally has positive reinforcement, but that reinforcement is often highly conditional. Consider the following example:

That is how it frequently works, and it is an excellent experience. However it is based on the illusion that the way you experience hunger or the offer of food is somehow the same for the person you believe you are experiencing empathy with. When this assumption is correct, you have a positive outcome. Because the last X times you behaved this way, you become quite convicted that your understanding is solid. Nevertheless, your empathy can be entirely misplaced and that will lead you down a course of action that may not be received well.

When you experience empathic rejection, it is that much more difficult to understand because your field research to date demonstrates that is not the normal response. Frequent empathetic rejection will likely diminish the empathic urges, much like any other form of negative conditioning, resulting in the eventual elimination of empathy altogether. (Of course that conclusion does not necessarily follow, but it certainly is a possibility)

Is the solution then to suppress those empathic urges in order to preserve them? This would produce a world of sociopaths where nobody concerns themselves with anyone else and it is an all vs all competition. In such a world the only thing that would constrain your behavior is fear of consequences. It would produce deference to authority and brutality towards the powerless. Although we have many free marketers that like to argue this is exactly what we should strive for, it is definitely not a solution that would be acceptable to many and certainly we would not have anything like a functional society, or even a community, if that is how we operated generally.

So how is one to behave? At this juncture I offer no advice whatsoever. It is an interesting problem, by which I mean a challenging problem that has to be approached seriously. A solution would be a formula that allows you to know when it would be acceptable to intervene and when you have to keep your big mouth shut. As anyone who knows me can attest, I do not know this formula, but if anyone is bold enough to offer one I would be happy to consider it.

Brad Neufeld
2021-01-17