The Paradox of Empathy: Is Good Behaviour Selfish?

Most everyone agrees that a just society promotes equality among its citizens, but blood is spilled over what sort of equality is morally preferable ~ Paul Bloom

Honour is a rather fickle word. As one raised in a country that promotes the individual character, I find the tribalism and public shaming aroused by the misconceptions surrounding honour to be incredibly confronting, particularly since it allows biased men to believe they are permitted or authorised to behave badly, especially towards women. Honour killings, acid throwing, FGM to name a few. Gangs that deal drugs and commit heinous crimes still have a code of “honour” between them and so it raises the question on whether the idea of honour is just moral romanticism. Honour is one of many words – including empathy and love – that we need to question. If we think about extreme political violence and the dehumanisation of groups of people, such as when millions were murdered during the holocaust, it was the false propaganda used against them that targeted empathy – Jews were “bad” because they hurt children and stole money – and so it was empathy that allowed the entire population to believe that they were doing the right thing by killing the “bad” people.

Psychopaths are incredibly successful in manipulating and targeting the empathy in others in order to obtain a desired and often violent outcome, but far greater in our society is the narcissist that – while mostly nonviolent – often target those who are highly empathetic knowing that performing on social cues, they will receive what they desire in return. If a narcissist only cares about admiration, money, sex, and freedom or entertainment, their true character is easily exposed by taking away the very thing they seek and so they become enraged, vengeful and malicious. Narcissists are the individual equivalent to political entities who dehumanise groups, because they do not actually care about others unless they obtain something from them and in the process dehumanise the worth of the other person.

There is a word in Turkish that hasn’t the English equivalent called vicdansız and it translates to someone who is unconscionable, yet, unlike this lack of conscience used to explain psychopaths in criminal law, vicdansız is a type of remorseless behaviour where someone is unable to see their own wrongdoing in all situations, not just criminal and therefore more aligned with narcissism. I realised, however, that an empathetic person who intends to do and seek goodness can actually do more damage without realising, perhaps while assuming they are doing good in much the same way as a narcissist is often unaware. As such, there is a distinction between ethical behaviour and selfish behaviour that needs to be addressed. A good action with selfish intentions does not necessarily undermine the good act, but it resists the authenticity of the act making it ethical, yes, but selfish at the same time. What does that exactly mean?

For many, we have learnt to understand right and wrong behaviour as a group, from our culture or religion, and our identity is formed not by our own means but through others and how they interpret our behaviour, so to question that would mean to lose all that we understood of our identity and reality – culture, religion, family – and that can feel extremely scary. However, it is healthy to consistently question definitions and our intentions with greater skepticism. People often see unethical behaviour to coexist with selfishness and thus conversely assume that those who are ethical are behaving without any selfish intentions, but there is a clear division between the two.

Psychological egoism implies that people decide to act and are motivated entirely by self-interest. Our decisions are compelled not by empathy and altruism, but rather the satisfaction of our desires whether it be the congratulations and attention that we receive from others or whether it is because we believe in heaven and that our good deeds will take us there. If we remove the religious and cultural influences and the group mentality, where there is actual substance – or what makes something real and true – we find that authenticity in a person’ character is seen only in their intentions.

According to Paul Bloom, there are two types of empathy which is emotional empathy and cognitive empathy and both differ and while we can identify an emotional connection with others and the world around us and feel a sense of suffering when someone else is in pain, this is completely different to cognitive empathy where a person can understand the suffering of others but are not emotionally attached to the experience. Psychopaths who are able to manipulate their target can also have cognitive empathy and this, for Bloom, raises some concerns around the ethical nature of the subject.

As a consequence, he touches on two very important problems that we have and what I have previously highlighted: the first is around our understanding of definitions and how we often have fixed conceptions of reality. We automatically assume something is true and therefore we fail to question, on the contrary when challenged with suggestions that perhaps our understanding of concepts like honour and empathy is problematic, we instead become defensive and angry. As a broad example, we assume that all mothers are wired to have unconditional love for their children and while this appears intuitively correct so much so that we automatically think that we do not need to question this, we know through infanticide, neglect, and abandonment among so much more that this is not actually the case. The second part of his thesis follows this very problem, which is that empathy itself – if understood incorrectly – can actually become a source of a fiction and be detrimental to morality that can lead to indifference, bad judgements and even political disasters.

The way that I read it, it is not empathy that is the problem. Just like I mentioned earlier about honour, empathy is actually a product of our decisions and relations with others around us and therefore does not exist independently as a moral virtue, but rather it is an outcome of the intentions and ultimately our activities with others. This answers how members of a violent gang can uphold virtuous principles as much as members of an NGO, that someone terrible can still be honourable by never ratting out other members to police and thus have a capacity for brotherhood or camaraderie with his friends as much as any other person. On the contrary, a very manipulative person who has very selfish intentions can see the advantages of appearing to be good and so uses the empathy of others as a way of profiting from their desire for better.

We fictionalise empathy. In much the same way we feel sadness or anger or happiness when we watch a movie or read a book or even listen to the news, people with an incorrect sense of empathy are drawn to the story and he uses a good example of mass shootings where most people are overwhelmed when this occurs when it only makes up a tiny portion of death by guns in the United States. We care more about attractive people rather than unattractive people, a mother and child over a man. These are merely indications that our capacity as individuals to correctly think and apply ourselves have nothing to do with empathy, but rather reason underlies all our ethical responses and intention underlies all our moral responses. The difference between ethical and moral is that the ethical is regarding our public activities and interactions, while our moral responses are private and emotional.

We have gut feelings, but we also have the capacity to override them, to think through issues, including moral issues, and to come to conclusions that can surprise us. I think this is where the real action is. It’s what makes us distinctively human, and it gives us the potential to be better to one another, to create a world with less suffering and more flourishing and happiness.

As I mentioned earlier, a good action with selfish intentions does not necessarily undermine the good act, so it is indeed ethical to do good things, but it resists the authenticity of the act and therefore it is immoral. So, we can ethically do good and do the right thing, but if our intentions are to profit from that goodness in some way, it explains the moral deprivation of the individual. The answer to this problem is to set aside empathy as being merely a product of a decision or action that can consequentially lead to good or bad outcomes, but rather to amalgam the ethical and moral by separating empathy and compassion, the latter a preferable explanation.

Compassion, for Bloom, is in similar vein the application of what is known in Buddhism as Mettā or lovingkindness, whereby you care about the individual or groups and you act on improving their lives, but you do so with effectiveness, with forethought, with pity and with equanimity where the other is considered equal to you. There is questions, reason, thinking through the emotions, unlike in empathy where there is no real forethought or questioning at all. While I am not entirely convinced about Bloom’ thesis on the subject, I do have to say that what I have taken from him and articulated in this blogpost is certainly aligned with my thoughts.

See: Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Random House (2017)

Also see podcast interview by Sam Harris.