Friday, September 30, 2011

“Empathy is a Sideshow”

I’m liking David Brooks these days. Surveying the cultural landscape from his desk at the New York Times, he has brought my attention to some interesting stuff. He will spot a clinker now and then, admittedly. His positive review for All Things Shining, for example, led me to one of the stupidest “smart” books I’ve read in recent years. But this morning Brooks hit a home run.

His op-ed piece, “The Limits of Empathy,” uses a new book as a jumping-off point:

As Steven Pinker writes in his mind-altering new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” we are living in the middle of an “empathy craze.” There are shelfloads of books about it: “The Age of Empathy,” “The Empathy Gap,” “The Empathic Civilization,” “Teaching Empathy.” There’s even a brain theory that we have mirror neurons in our heads that enable us to feel what’s in other people’s heads and that these neurons lead to sympathetic care and moral action.

There’s a lot of truth to all this. We do have mirror neurons in our heads. People who are empathetic are more sensitive to the perspectives and sufferings of others. They are more likely to make compassionate moral judgments. 

But, Brooks writes, empathy is not enough. Empathy did not work in the Holocaust. (“Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it.”) Brooks quotes Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York: “Studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.”

Consider that empathy is the last best hope of secular humanism. Throw away the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes along with the Catechism of the Catholic Church (substitute your preferred code, if you wish, but be choosy)—and you are left with what’s in the human heart. Empathy is there, sometimes, but is it enough to hope that empathy will win out in the end over jingoism, racism, resentment, hatred, lust . . . (The list is long.) The recent empathy craze, it seems to me, is only a grasping at straws.

While Brooks does not cite a specific moral code (he writes for the New York Times), he finally notes that one is necessary—and not just any moral code but a sacred one:

People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.

If Brooks’s piece had ended here, it would have been just about perfect. But, since he swims in the same pool of cultural relativism you and I do—and since the New York Times does pay his salary—he has to dilute his message by the end:

Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. . . .

The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow. If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes. Accept that codes conflict.
“Empathy is a sideshow.” It’s not enough by half. But which code should one adopt? Biker gangs have their codes. There is sharia law, too.

At the base of my conversion to the Catholic Church—after being raised Episcopalian, then spending 40 years in the agnostic wilderness—was an appreciation for the deep past, a sense that if this code worked for Sts. Peter, Augustine, Catherine, Teresa, et al, why wouldn’t it work for me—especially if this code is rooted in an older sacred code, of the Old Testament, of the prophets and Moses? Ultimately, any moral code is not sufficient. Each of us must make a judgment among moral codes. 

Still and all, after reading Brooks’s piece, I feel better armed for the next time someone says to me, “Can’t we all just get along?”

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