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					Empathy, Aliens, and Others:
Confessions of an Empathy Skeptic
Richard Warner
Chicago-Kent College of Law
   I am an empathy skeptic.
       Not in the sense that I deny empathy is possible.
       I think: we often think we empathize when we in fact we
        do not.
   My goal is not to convince to you to join me in my
    skeptical vision.
   My goal is to use skeptical arguments—arguments I
    perhaps find too persuasive—to illuminate the nature
    of empathy.
   To explain my skepticism, I need to explain what I
    mean by “empathy.”
Empathy Defined
   I mean what the dictionary means.
   Empathy is “understanding . . . and
    vicariously experiencing the feelings,
    thoughts, and experience of another . . .
    without having the feelings, thoughts, and
    experience fully communicated in an
    objectively explicit manner.”
         Merriam Webster Online,
Alien Twins
   It illuminates the definition to consider a situation in
    which empathy is simply impossible.
   Aliens from outer space finally arrive:
       The result of a parallel evolution, they are our cosmic
        twins. The look, act, speak, etc. just as we do; they have
        their Newton, Kant, Confucius, Keats, and so on.
       In particular: what causes gratitude, joy, fear, and so on
        in them is the same as what causes those experiences in
        us, and the thoughts and actions those experiences causes
        in them are the same as they causes in us.
       But: the feeling at the center of the causal nexus is not the
           The aliens’ neurophysiology is fundamentally different, with the
            result that while, their felt experience is utterly different from
            ours. We have never felt anything at all like what they feel.
Alien Inaccessibility
   When the alien Keats writes, “A thing of beauty is a
    joy forever,” the joy to which he refers feels utterly
    different than the joy to which our Keats refers.
   And: We will never know what alien joy feels like.
    It is inaccessible to us.
   We will never empathize in the sense of vicariously
    experiencing what they feel.
   We will never know what it is like to feel as they do.
Human Accessibility
   We—we human beings—are not inaccessible to each
    other in this way.
   We can vicariously experience another’s feelings
    and thereby know how he or she feels.
       I think the word “know” is appropriate here
       If you don’t, substitute “have better reason than not to
       The point is: we have an epistemic relation to the feeling
        of other humans which we do not have to the feelings of
        the aliens.
A Skeptical Argument
   I am going to argue that we do not know how
    others feel.
   The point is not to convince you of a
    conclusion it would be insane to believe.
   The point is use the argument to show
       that we do not adequately understand how we
       and to provide insight into what it is we do not
A Routine Case of Empathy
   When my grandmother dies, you
       imagine my reactions,
       feel a wrenching sense of loss, and
       infer that I feel the same
       where the ground of the inference is your assumption that
        our felt responses to the death are relevantly similar.
   My claim: you do not know that we are relevantly
    similar and hence that you do not know that I feel as
    you do.
       Such arguments provoke dismissive responses (and for
        good reason). But play along for now.
An Analogy
   The argument rests on the following completely
    uncontroversial observations about evidence and
       As you are walking along a forest path, you see a
       Two different species of animal, A’s and B’s, leave
        exactly that footprint, and
       it is equally likely that it was left by either (there are an
        equal number of A’s and B’s in the forest).
       You do not know which animal left it.
           To know it is an A, you have to rule out the possibility it is a B,
            and vice versa.
           You can do neither on the basis of the footprint alone.
Two Equally Likely Hypotheses
   In the footprint case, you do not know
    because the totality of your evidence leaves
    two inconsistent hypotheses equally likely.
   I will argue that the same is true in the
    grandmother’s-death-sense-of-loss example.
   The two hypotheses:
       I am human being with feelings similar to yours.
       I am an alien twin with utterly different feelings.
The Second Hypothesis
   To fill out the second--alien twin--hypothesis
    imagine that:
       After a nuclear holocaust in 1957, our alien twins
        (conveniently immune to radiation) froze fertilized eggs
        from the last survivors (all of whom subsequently died).
       In 1975, the aliens unthawed one egg as a test--you.
        Difficulties made them decide to postpone another test
        until 2020.
       To avoid the shock of your discovering you are the only
        human, the aliens let you think they are all human beings
Conclusion: You Do Not Know
   The totality of your evidence cannot decide between
    two hypotheses:
       I feel what you feel
       I am an alien with utterly different felt experiences.
   Note: you have no more reason to think I feel as
    you do than you have to think I am an alien.
       It is not as if you had pretty good reason to think I feel as
        you do but that the reasons somehow rise to the level of
   You could know. You could excavate Montana
    (where the eggs are buried), or dissect me. But you
    have not done either of these things.
Significance Of This Result
   The result—or better, its solution--is philosophically
       Indeed, it is just one version of the problem of other
   The solution may in the future have some scientific
       Einstein’s critique of Newtonian mechanics was partly
        based on epistemic principles.
       It is not implausible to think some future
        psychophysiology will require similar epistemic guidance.
           But that day is far away.
   I will turn to results of more immediate application.
   As I confessed at the outset:
       I think we often think we empathize when we in fact we
        do not.
   One reason I think this is that I think people deceive
    us about how they feel.
   My point:
       Not convince you of my view of human nature
       But to understand how we know (if we do) that others do
        not as a rule deceive us.
   Method: produce a variant of the alien twin
    argument which replace the alien twin possibility
    with a possibility of deception.
The Deception Possibility
   Having observed my behavior after the death of my
    grandmother, you believe that you know that I feel a
    sense of loss similar to that which you feel.
   The following is possible:
       I do not feel a sense of loss.
       I pretend to feel a sense of loss because doing so is easier
        than explaining the lack of feeling which I experience.
       Therefore: you are mistaken when you infer that I feel as
        you do on the basis of my behavior and the assumption
        that you and I are relevantly similar in our felt responses
        to death.
The Argument Proceeds As Before
   The possibility of deception show you fail to know because
    the totality of your evidence is consistent with two
       I really feel a sense of loss
       I am just pretending
   This is not deny you could (you could eavesdrop when I
    voice my true feelings in what I think is my secret
    Shakespearean soliloquy).
   But: we often attribute feelings to others on relatively slim
    evidential bases.
       Othello
       Undercover agents and spies
       Intimates--spouses, lovers, friends
The Conclusion and The Question
   The conclusion is that you have no more reason to
    think I feel as you do than you have to think I am
   This is not our attitude toward others. we think we
    have good grounds to think the other reveals true
    feelings, not sham ones.
   The question: how is it that—on such seemingly
    inadequate evidence—we are so often rightly
    confident that we are not deceived?
       I have some quibbles about the “so often,” but, as I
        promised, I am putting my skepticism aside.
Seemingly Inadequate Evidence
   It bears emphasis that the evidence on which we
    ordinarily attribute feelings to others is often
    seemingly inadequate.
   It is seemingly inadequate in the sense that the
    totality of our evidence often appears to leave two
    hypotheses equally likely:
       The other feels as we do
       The other is just pretending.
   There are just two solutions:
       Appearances to the contrary, our evidence actually does
        favor the “really feeling” hypothesis, or
       we can know without deciding between the hypotheses.
The Othello Problem
   A solution would solve the “Othello problem.”
   Othello is a disturbing play about systematic
   The fact that systematic Iago-like deception is
    obviously possible challenges us to explain and
    justify the trust in others which underpins our
    relationships with them.
   To understand the basis of such trust would be to
    more deeply understand ourselves.
Now Turning to Empathy . . .
   We have focused on the problem of other minds.
   Empathy—in the sense of requiring vicarious
    experience--has played a relatively minor role in the
       It does play a role: “I feel this way, so other feel that way
   So why does vicarious experience seem so
       Important enough that we have a concept of empathy
        defined in terms of vicarious experience.
   The following example points the way to an answer.
The Prime Minister’s Faux Pas
   Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell
    once told residents at a shelter in Vancouver’s Skid
    Row that she too had felt disappointment.
       She had once wanted to be a concert cellist.
   This is just plain silly—at least it is to anyone who
    imagines the residents’ sense of loss and
    disappointment having a depth, extent, and intensity
    unknown in the PM’s experience.
   The PM has never vicariously experienced that sort
    of sense of loss and disappointment.
Beyond the General Category
   She knows the genus but not the species.
       She has felt disappointment, but not the variety the
        residents have experienced.
           When all you have seen are gold fish, you do not know what a
            shark looks like.
   Empathy takes us—can take us--beyond just
    knowing that our feelings and the feelings of others
    belong to the same general category.
   It can use our feelings to paint a portrait of another’s
    feelings in a way that allows us to know the specific
    felt quality of the other’s experience.
Are We Like the PM?
   I think—in my skeptical way—that we are more like
    the PM than we are inclined to admit.
       In the sense that we over-generalize, and hence think we
        successfully empathize when in fact we do not.
       Not (necessarily) in the sense that we mistakenly think we
        empathize with the downtrodden.
   I present my argument, again not to convince you of
    the conclusion, but as a device for diagnosis.
       A tool to use to discover the epistemic basis of our
        attributions of feelings to others.
Our Epistemic Situation
   We often want to grasp how others will feel.
       Not just the general category, but the specific feeling.
           We want people to “get” us in this way--friends, lovers, spouses.
   Typically, all we have to go on is our own felt
    reactions to imagined situations.
       We inevitably use them as the basis on which to predict
        how others will feel.
       We have no Comprehensive Manual of Human Felt
        Reactions Categorized by Personality Type and
        Circumstance to consult.
   So, we routinely generalize from our own
Two Hypotheses
   In many cases, the totality of our—relatively
    slim evidence—leaves two hypotheses
    equally likely:
       The other’s feelings have the same specific felt
        quality as ours
       The other’s feelings belong to the same general
        category, but have a different specific felt quality.
   Hence, we do not really know.
An Example
   A chess journalist is watching the future world
    champion, Mikail Tal, bent in concentration over the
    chessboard, calculating a possible knight sacrifice in
    very complicated position.
   The journalist, who will interview Tal later, wants to
    prepare by trying himself to feel what Tal must be
   Drawing on his own chess experience, the journalist
    begins to feel a particular combination of elation and
    anxiety as the branches on “the tree of variations”
    grow with incredible rapidity in his imagination.
   He thinks he is feeling just what Tal is feeling.
Tal’s Report of the Experience
   Tal did feel elation and anxiety as he too
    experienced the proliferation of variations, but also:
       Suddenly, I remembered the couplet by Chukovsky:
            Oh, what a difficult job it was
            To drag out of the marsh the hippopotamus.
       although the spectators were convinced that I was continuing to study
        the position, I was trying to work out: just how would you drag a
        hippopotamus out of a marsh? Eventually, I admitted defeat as an
        engineer, and thought spitefully: “Well, let it drown! I realized it
        was not possible to calculate all the variations, and that the knight
        sacrifice was purely intuitive. Since it promised an interesting game,
        I could not refrain from making it.
           Mikail Tal, The Life and Games of Mikail Tal
How Often The Hippopotamus?
   The specific felt quality of Tal’s experience was
    quite different than what the journalist imagined.
   How often do we get it right when we try to divine
    the specific nature of another’s felt experience, and
    how often do we fail to recognize the hippopotamus?
   To what extent are our feelings a lens which reveals
    the specific quality of another’s inner life, and to
    what extent do we, in fact, confront each other as

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