Another thought experiment, inspired by a conversation with this blogger*.
If you had to live in a world where, compared to this one, people had
A. 50% more critical thinking and 50% less empathy
B. 50% more empathy and 50% less critical thinking,
which would you choose?
I would choose A. I sometimes find myself in situations where I can barely talk to people who others consider “aww, they’re so nice!”… Makes me feel like I am a cold b*tch, but it is because these people would choose to live in A.
In B, you side with the first person you meet.
Empathy, today, is being used as a word for kindness, but it isn’t. Kindness is an outcome. Neither is empathy conflict-aversion. Some have began talking about effective altruism as an upgraded version of empathy. Problem is that effective altruism is as close to empathy as effective evilness. Empathy is just the ability to understand the feelings of another person. It leads to a congruent emotional response.*
People assume that once one understand how someone feels, one will immediately want to side with them. That simply can’t be.
Spite is the ultimate proof of this: you need to understand your opponent very well in order to be spiteful. The most spiteful are the most empathetic, not the most psychopathic. Psychopathy isn’t necessarily evil and empathy isn’t necessarily good.
Who is the most caring person in your life? Have you ever seen them being spiteful to anyone you know?
A resident of B wants better outcomes for people they feel a kinship with. In other words, they feel spite for people they don’t feel close to – there is no other way in a zero sum short term scenario. They are the ultimate tribalists.
An empathetic person with deficient critical thinking can never agree to disagree.
Good critical thinking is not exactly a solution to a lack of empathy. It’s virtually impossible to become part of a tribe if you’re a deficient in empathy. Critical thinking also loses its potency if you can’t understand the other guy’s feelings. The decision making process is much slower in an unempathetic person. A lot of problems, in short.
Daniel Goleman talks about how members of the “dark triad” become great at social skills because they learn the stigmata of common emotions which is a legitimate way around it for unempathetic people.
It’s like hardcoding vs proper code. Empathy is hard code: quick, unconditional and generally correct.
I know some people who are almost 100% empathetic, but I’ve never met anyone who has 0% empathy, which makes me think empathy is an older, more important trait (quick decisions, Kahneman’s system one, etc)
Obviously, you would prefer to be optimally capable at empathy and critical thinking, but if you had to choose, which would you choose?
Some other places talking about empathy:
* I made the point that non-religious people can be “religious” about certain things, e.g. politics, e.g. in WW2. He made the point that it’s down to a lack of critical thinking.
** George F. brought up the point that the definition of empathy is not only the understanding but the sharing of a feeling. I think that’s a step too far if taken literally. There is some intermediary step where a person can appreciate the feelings of another and either decide to take them as their own or else to revel in their misfortune. We don’t just literally take other people’s feelings as our own, we just get a good insight into them. The most empathetic of people would be rather harmful if they literally shared the feelings of someone in need of help.