David Brooks has a new column out on empathy, this time about its limits. I was looking forward to reading it at first, mostly because I think Brooks has written intelligently about empathy in the past. In particular, when critics argued that President Obama’s search for “empathetic” judges would promote emotionality over objectivity, Brooks took a more moderate (and Humean) stance:
“Supreme Court justices, like all of us, are emotional intuitionists. They begin their decision-making processes with certain models in their heads. These are models of how the world works and should work, which have been idiosyncratically ingrained by genes, culture, education, parents and events. These models shape the way judges perceive the world…
The crucial question in evaluating a potential Supreme Court justice, therefore, is not whether she relies on empathy or emotion, but how she does so. First, can she process multiple streams of emotion? Reason is weak and emotions are strong, but emotions can be balanced off each other. Sonia Sotomayor will be a good justice if she can empathize with the many types of people and actions involved in a case, but a bad justice if she can only empathize with one type, one ethnic group or one social class.
This time around, though, Brooks is worried that the empathy fad has gone too far. We’re “surrounded” by do-gooders, to the point that we’re experiencing “the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments:”
Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them…In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.
In philosophical terms, I think Brooks is in fine territory to state that empathy is good, just insufficient to resolve many disputes. As a point about modern society, though, I’m skeptical. Have we really reached empathy saturation? Or, to set a less high bar, how can we tell that we have emphasized empathy so much that it’s taking time away from other worthy causes? Brooks himself wrote about “troubling evidence” of a social decline in empathy just over six months ago, theorizing that it might be due to a decrease in face-to-face interactions (technology is always an easy target). Since then, it might be that new evidence has changed his mind, or it might just be that it’s hard to empirically ground statements about the empathy quota of an entire society.
Finally, it also strikes me as a strange criticism that teaching empathy is a “safe” way for schools and other public institutions to feel virtuous. I agree with Brooks that our moral terrain is wide and contains many complex codes and motivations. But in the face of such breadth and complexity, shouldn’t we have public institutions focus on basic, shared elements that most people agree are valuable? (I can’t claim that I came up with this idea) It seems to me that empathy is one of the most basic components of many moral codes, and that in this case what is “safe” for people to be teaching is also desirable. I hope Brooks can empathize.