Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Limits of Empathy: Critique of Stephen Pinker - It doesn't make you a better person

NY Times   By David Brooks. We are surrounded by people trying to make the world a better place. Peace activists bring enemies together so they can get to know one another and feel each other’s pain. School leaders try to attract a diverse set of students so each can understand what it’s like to walk in the others’ shoes. Religious and community groups try to cultivate empathy. 

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. 

The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action. 

In the early days of the Holocaust, Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it. Subjects in the famous Milgram experiments felt anguish as they appeared to administer electric shocks to other research subjects, but they pressed on because some guy in a lab coat told them to. 

Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.[...]


  1. Interesting to note that this is where the Jewish and Chrisian golden rules diverge.
    We say "What is hateful to you do not do unto your friend."
    They say "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
    We have empathy but there's no demand that we act on it. They have empathy and demand action but what if the other guy doesn't want it?

  2. Pinker brings convincing proof and statistics in the video that empathy and other world trends are leading to greater peace. Brooks argues that empathy doesn't make much difference. Actually, Pinker (in the video) does not claim that empathy works alone but only together with other trends such as cosmopolitanism and education. As for Brooks claim that people with moral codes are the most merciful, the other side of the coin is that they are the most violent when it comes to dealing with people their moral code despises. Take Jihad and Nazism as two examples. In conclusion, as Berel Wein says, the best state of the world is frum Jews and freier non-Jews.

  3. The video itself is very interesting!

    1. By the way, sorry for referring to Nazism as a moral code. As I mentioned in another post, you need to read quite a bit about the Nazis to realize they thought themselves the most wonderful people on earth. They pioneered nature conservation and were very concerned about animal rights. They were concerned about improving the national genetic stock to the point of killing cretins and cripples, and encouraged their womenfolk to be fruitful and multiply in order to propagate the master race. Killing Jews was the greatest deed of all because it was the most morally difficult as Eichman said in a speech. Fundamentalist Moslems are also wonderful in their own way until they blow you to bits. Give me Western empathy any time.

  4. After getting Pinker's and Brook's POV, one should surely wonder - What's "Daas Torah"? I think...
    1) The Torah most definitely expects us to empathize with others AND expects us to act on that empathy(one where helping another causes a person serious damage is there a possible exception.

    2) I think that the obvious reason why empathy doesn't always carry over to action is....
    A) A lack of awareness of Torah knowledge of knowing when empathy should take precedence over other competing interests. In the example of a empathic Nazi guard, he would not be allowed to kill another, even if his own life was in danger. If he was told to do something less extreme, in many cases he SHOULD follow orders if he has no other choice and his life is in mortal danger.
    B) A lack of Yiras Shomayim - peer pressure, fear of authority, loss of status, income, etc. takes precedence by most people, because we don't necessarily see following Torah rules as being in our best interests, but rather as obligations. We may therefore look for loopholes whenever possible, especially when we're under real or imagined pressures.

    Empathy is a foundation of מצות בין אדם לחבירו as mentioned in the Rishonim.

    Emapthy for others is also plain common sense, as the Chovos Halvovos says here:

    והשנים ועשרים חשבונו עם נפשו על התערבו עם בני אדם בתקנת העולם מחרישה וקצירה, ומיקח וממכר, והעניינים שנעזרים בהם קצת בני אדם בקצתם על ישוב העולם, שיאהב להם מה שיאהב לנפשו מהם, וישנא להם מה שישנא לנפשו מהם, ויחמול עליהם וידחה מהם כפי יכולתו מה שיזיקם.
    כמו שכתוב (ויקרא יט) ואהבת לרעך כמוך.
    וימשל בזה, כאלו אנשים הלכו אל ארץ רחוקה בדרך עקוב, ויש להם ללון במחנים רבים, ויש להם בהמות רבות טעונות במשאות גדולות, והאנשים במתי מעט, ולכל אחד מהם בהמות רבות שהוא צריך לטעון ולפרוק אותם פעמים.
    ואם יעזרו איש את אחיו לטעון ולפרוק, ויהיה חפצם בשלום הכל ולהקל מעליהם, ושיהיו שווים בעזר ובסיוע ביניהם, יגיעו אל הטוב שבעניינים.
    ואם יחלק ליבם, ולא יסכימו לעצה אחת, וישתדל כל אחד מהם לעזור לעצמו לבד - ילאה רובם.
    ומן הפנים האלה, אחי, כבד העולם על יושביו, ונכפלה עליהם עבודתו וטרחו, מפני שרצו להתייחד כל אחד מהם בחלקו בו, וביותר מחוקו ממנו. ומפני שרצו ממנו יותר מחוקם, וביקשו בו אשר לא להם, מנעם העולם חוקם ממנו, ולא המציא להם חלקם בו. על כן אינם מרוצים ממנו, ואין אחד בהם שאינו מתרעם בו ובוכה עליו. כי בקשו בו מותרי המחיה, ומונעם הוא די הספוק, אלא לאחר הטורח הגדול והיגיעה הרבה.
    ואילו היה מספיק להם די ספקם, ותהיה השתדלותם שווה לתועלת כולם, ויהיו שווים בענייניהם, היו מנצחים עולמם ומגיעים אל יותר מחפצם בו.

  5. Empathy as a deterrent of violence and a cause of peace is leftist nonsense. How do I know? Because Obama recently went to the Israelis and gave a condescending speech in which he instructed them to have empathy toward Fakestinians. And Hillary Clinton also made a comment that Israelis lack empathy. This shows it is part of a fraud designed to convince Jews to commit national suicide for the sake of a "peace" that will never exist.

    1. Misapplication of a noble concept doesn't prove the concept wrong - All it proves is that the sly and wicked use noble concepts to further their evil agendas.

    2. Perhaps you are right.

      But we should still be wary (and at least aware) of its use in this obvious conspiracy.

  6. I suspect a great fear of the religious world is that modern day empathy may be putting their good deeds in the shade. A lot of ink is expended explaining why the kindness of non-Jews is not real kindness etc. Yet I think that social improvements in recent times have done more for the poor than a million charity pushkes could achieve. In the last US elections, frum Jews were pro republican due to its less tolerant slant, while regular Jews supported Obama because of his social programs. Kinda made the regular Jews seem kinder.

  7. "Yet I think that social improvements in recent times have done more for the poor than a million charity pushkes could achieve. "

    And what "social improvements" would those be?

    Please include details on what exactly was 'done for the poor' and by which specific govt programs and explain how private charity has not matched its achievements.

    Or were you just saying that a greater tax on the rich is ephemerally "better for the poor" than charity, just because?

    1. health insurance in israel is in many ways a tax on the rich. an upper middle class family with 2 kids pays a large health tax. the people on the bottom of the economic ladder also pay a tax, but much much less. there is no way that tzedaqa could do what mas briut does.

    2. Take social security for example. Without it old people and those unable to work would need to beg in the streets. What about health insurance in Israel and England?

  8. The person most responsible for introducing empathy in the psychotherapeutic arsenal at the highest level of theory was Heinz Kohut. He was a Jew who left Vienna before the war and married a Christian woman here in America. When I read his biography I had the impression that his empathy for others was absent when it came to Jews. In any event he did not identify at all with who he was, namely a Jew. I found this disturbing.

  9. you can hear some of these ideas in aumann's noble lecture:


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