Hutcheson Redux? Against Empathy.

Cartons labelled "empathy" stacked on shelves.
Empathy in a carton
(c) Geoff Jones/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the current Boston Review, Paul Bloom has a discussion piece, Against Empathy. He opens by referencing Adam Smith…

The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but here I am adopting its most common meaning, which corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.

Paul Bloom identifies issues with empathy – that we are more likely to feel empathetic towards people like us or people who are attractive; that empathy leads us to focus on individual cases but ignore mass suffering. He argues that empathy is not the only thing that can motivate helping, compassion can too.

A compassionate person might value others’ lives in the abstract, and, recognizing the misery caused by starvation, be motivated to act accordingly. Summing up, compassionate helping is good for you and for others. But empathetic distress is destructive of the individual in the long run.

He concludes: “If we were all constituted in this way, if we could all put anger in its place, ours would be a kinder and better world. That is how we should think about empathy too.”

Francis Hutcheson would have agreed. In the Preface to his Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (p. 8) he says:

Perfection of Virtue consists in having the universal calm Benevolence, the prevalent Affection of the Mind, so as to limit and counteract not only the selfish Passions, but even the particular kind Affections.

Hutcheson was the teacher of Adam Smith and corresponded with David Hume. However Hutcheson’s moral system was based on innate senses relating to the perception and motivation of moral acts, rather than the power of empathy.

These innate senses (Hutcheson calls them “inward Power(s) of Perception”) are analogous with the external senses of sight, hearing, etc. In the Essay (pp. 17-18) he lists five types of senses: the external senses, internal senses (relating to aesthetics and imagination), public sense (relating to “our Determination to be pleased with the Happiness of others, and to be uneasy at their Misery.”, including affection, empathy and benevolence), a moral sense (by which “we perceive Virtue, or Vice in our selves, or others”) and a sense of honour. In later works he separates out the senses, resulting in a list of a dozen or so (see Schmitter in the SEP.)

The sensations arising from these senses cause desires. For example from the public sense arises the desire for the happiness of others and avoidance of pain from seeing others’ unhappiness; from the moral sense arises the desire for virtue and aversion to vice. These give rise to secondary desires, to enable the primary desires to be fulfilled (Essay, p. 19-20). Hutcheson further divides each desire into the object it has – those advantageous to oneself are “selfish” and those not pursued with an eye to personal advantage are “publick” or benevolent desires (Essay, p. 22).

Sensations also cause “affections”: “direct immediate Perception of Pleasure or Pain” (Essay, p. 30). They may also cause “passions”, a passion being:

a confused Sensation either of Pleasure or Pain, occasioned or attended by some violent bodily Motions, which keeps the Mind much employed upon the present Affair, to the exclusion of every thing else, and prolongs or strengthens the Affection sometimes to such a degree, as to prevent all deliberate Reasoning about our Conduct.

In Hutcheson’s scheme, passions can drive us to actions that, on reflection, we realise are counter productive. He recommends we gain control over our passions by strengthening our “general Desires” – that is, the calm desires we have for the general good – by reflecting on them, and thus making them habitual (Essay, p. 32).

Hutcheson would, then, agree with Bloom that, while both empathy and anger are needed, excessive empathy is not ideal. Like excessive anger, it can lead to bad decisions. He would favour a more calm approach to morality, which may lead us to favour the general good over other motivations. (As he wrote in the Inquiry, we should aim to do that which achieves the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers.)

Hutcheson, like Bloom, believes that general good feeling to all is possible. In an earlier work, “An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue” (pp. 114-115), he even makes a suggestion that seems incongruous in a writer 240 years before Star Trek:

And had we any Notions of rational Agents, capable of moral Affections, in the most distant Planets, our good Wishes would still attend them, and we should delight in their Happiness.

References and further reading.

Page numbers refer to the Liberty Fund editions of the Inquiry and the Essay.

Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy together with responses from Simon Baron-Cohen, Peter Singer and Sam Harris among others.

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