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Ian Morton's picture

Empathy: Necessary But Not Sufficient

In considering a non-foundational approach to life, within oneself there will undoubtedly arise a sense of discomfort (existential angst). It is apparent that we as humans are attached to having a sense being grounded in a world wherein there exists some form of certainty, Truth or Meaning, and to have the foundations we can rely on in an already complex and uncertain world cast into the shadow of existential uncertainty, is sure to agitate some gut wrenching reaction. I wonder, how much of our attachment to “unwobbling pivots” comes from predispositions arising from the nature of the mind (connecting to Paul Bloom’s concept of ‘primitive psychology’?”) and how much is a result of social conditioning/learning? While this is not a question I pose to answer, it is one worth considering, for if we hope to move past our attachment to unshakable foundations, as Paul suggests we do, it would behoove us to first understand the nature and origins of this attachment. However, for now I only wish to discuss the notion of non-foundationalism.

Is it beneficial for us to even consider non-foundationlism? Our gut reaction is to resist it, so is that reason enough to dismiss it? Perhaps our gut reaction itself indicates that we should further investigate this subject. Just as science progresses from “being wrong,” from making observations that defy the previous “rules” thus promoting new thoughts and new ways to summarize our surroundings, so too could our view of the human condition progress from questioning the rules we now have, from edging our comfort zones. I believe Rorty was of such a mindset, striving to direct us away from the false sense of security we derive from rationality and certainty, to revolutionize the way we (philosophers in particular) think. Similarly, Paul is suggesting that we may benefit from sacrificing our attachment to certainty, to recognize the dynamic character of reality and therefore the transitory nature of any story one creates to explain it. When we can accept the discomfort of uncertainty we see that the pursuit of Truth and “unshakable foundations” has thus far been in vain, and that we should rather understand inquiry as the pursuit of “less wrong” summaries of observed reality subject to temporality and subjectivity.

So where do we go with this notion of non-foundationalism as to addressing social justice? As Rorty writes, “What you share with them … is not ‘rationality’ or ‘human nature’ or ‘the fatherhood of God’ or ‘a knowledge of the Moral Law’, or anything other than ability to sympathize with the pain of others … There is no particular reason to expect that your sensitivity to that pain … [is] going to fit within one big overall account of how everything hangs together,” (Rorty, 1992). In other words, just as there are no foundational laws, there too exists no universal code of ethics, no categorical imperatives, no collective sense of ethical responsibility. This poses interesting problems when trying to promote the movement towards an “ethical” and “moral” society. How can we shape an ethical society when we have no foundation of ethics from which to build? Can there be an ethical society in which there exists no universal code of ethics?

In his essay, Trotsky and the Wild Orchids, Rorty contends that we should spend our life pursuing our “orchids,” or that which interests and pleases us, and that we can rely on empathy and a shared sense of humanity to protect us from falling into a world of anarchy and chaos, wholly lacking in “ethical” behavior. Rorty’s view is idealistic with an echo of an Aristotelian sense of happiness (the “good”) and an existentialist call for freedom and self-determination. While Rorty’s picture of an ideal society is nice, I do not believe it to be feasible. My main concern is Rorty’s reliance on empathy. I do not intend to deny the power of empathy, but want to stress the reliance of empathy on the interpersonal, on seeing the Other. Quite simple, one does not feel empathy for another if one is not confronted with the suffering of another. While the neurological basis of empathy has not been defined, it seems clear to me that it depends on first perceiving an Other. Following from this initial perception, one must then recognize the Other to be suffering, which must then trigger an internal series of firing patterns that give rise to a sense of shared suffering. (Some research suggests mirror neurons may play a key role in this.) The main point is that in order to feel empathy for another, it typically requires that we be in proximity to one who is suffering, through being either physically there or through the medium of images or perhaps aural cues (a scream or moan).

Here one may reasonably ask why this stipulation for the felt sense of empathy can prove problematic to Rorty’s image of an ideal society. While empathy may rely on proximity to an Other, there are plenty of people in this world, thus plenty of people in proximity to one another, so as to efficiently attend to the suffering of every other person. This is true, however this assumes everyone is equally capable of helping one another. This is not the case, as a healthy, privileged, American has more of the necessary resources needed to help a starving, sick child in Africa than a poor man in Africa would. When one considers the fact that it is the poor man in Africa who will see the starving child, who will feel empathy for that child, not the American who is blissfully ignorant of that child’s suffering, it is clear to see that a system relying on empathy alone has the potential to fall far short of its intended purpose. Essentially, I am arguing that Rorty’s system would be limited to very localized ethical behavior, as this system combined with the nature of how empathy is born fails to facilitate global ethics.

Additionally, one must not overlook the notion of resistance. That is, while we may know of the suffering of others, it is easy for us to turn a blind eye to that suffering. In fact, we prefer to do so. I doubt that any of us like to take an hour or two out of our day to think about the injustice of the world, to see the suffering that is occurring around us. Why we have this resistance to recognizing/seeing the suffering of others, a prerequisite for feeling any empathy towards those others, is complex and multidimensional. Simply, it just isn’t pleasant to see the homeless woman strung out on crack or a child emaciated to the point of incapacitation. However, this gets more complicated when we consider all the reasons why it is unpleasant to see such things. Perhaps seeing the homeless woman is unpleasant because it makes us feel guilty (guilty because we aren’t doing the most we can to help her, guilty because we require the suppression of others to have the privilege we do, or maybe we feel guilty because we pity them). Perhaps seeing the starving child is unpleasant because it forces us to face the injustice of the world, to recognize the cruelty of men. We may also resist seeing the suffering of others because we don’t want to feel empathy, we don’t want to feel a demand from the other to ease his/her suffering. I cannot hope to explain why we resist seeing the suffering of others, but I do hope I have made it clear that we do have such a resistance, and that the source of that resistance is complex and therefore not something to which we can draft a quick and simple solution.

Rorty may retort by arguing that through abandoning our attachment to unshakable foundations we may be more fit to attend to our empathy. For instance, perhaps we resist seeing the suffering of another because it reflects the injustice of life, thereby calling into question the existence of meaning in life and even the existence of God (If God is all-Good, why is there suffering in the world?). Out of attachment to our unwobbling pivots we resist seeing anything that confronts our sense of certainty and Purpose. (This is not asserted as fact, but is a possibility.) Consequently when we are able to give up our need to preserve our sense of security/certainty we will be more open to facing the injustices in the world. I cannot refute this possibility, but I still do not believe that empathy alone would be enough to promote a “just” or “ethical” society.

More thoughts to come.


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