R.C. Smith

To think of ethics is likely today to evoke the idea of empathy. Similarly, in the context of many mainstream discourses within social theory, to think of empathy is often to evoke philosophical consideration in the field of radical ethics. The same is true with the order of terms reversed. It is not uncommon for contemporary discourses around radical ethics to be situated very closely to the prevailing emphasis on empathy. But what is the social value of empathy? This question does not mean to incite a common definition, namely “the ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another individual’s emotional state”. The target of my query is much more fundamental in the sense of a social value.

It is en vogue these days to believe that empathy is key to unlocking morality once and for all. Religious and philosophical ethics are commonly out the window – the former understandably. Empathy is here to save the day. Like equality or democracy, it has become a social value that many are increasingly relying on philosophically as a source of ultimate and profound goodness. It has become a staple value for progressives. And it makes sense, because empathy suggests the broader horizon of a particular progressive social world conceived on the basis of social justice and non-violence and mutual recognition and all that other stuff. Within this mainstream and established discourse the problem, we learn, is that there’s just not enough empathy. But what I would like to do is take a moment to question this value or principle in its pure conceptual form. More concisely, I would like to ask: is empathy enough?

In beginning to approach this question, I offer two immediate points of clarity. In the past I have written about empathy as a key to a broader ethical theory. In a recent book on social pathology, which considers the deficit of reason in contemporary society from a number of angles, empathy was one of a number of normative values that was considered as an essential constituent of an integrative and progressive social philosophy. But there is a caveat, and it is an important one. Empathy was considered directly in relation to rationality. The same goes for past engagements with things like intersubjective theory, which I have argued toward within the field of interpersonal social ethics, but again with the caveat that social intersubjectivity is insubstantial without rationality. Perhaps, in the end, what all these debates come down to is a discourse on epistemology. But seeing how such a discussion extends beyond the remit of our current engagement, let’s continue down a more simple path that entertains a series of reflections on reason and empathy.

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Reason and empathy? Empathy and reason? In present popular discourses, the two are often perceived antinomically. Proponents of empathy argue away from reason and rationality. Extreme proponents on the other side, in terms of what some seem to describe in philosophy as a strict and immoderate rationalism within the field of social theory, which should in no way be conflated with a positive, moderate or sensible rationalism, will sometimes lose sight of the value or important role of empathy in interpersonal relations. The criticism here, from what I have gleaned, is that such a strict rationalism, which some seem to also associate with social positivist theory, is said to lose sight of how human emotion, for better or for worse, forms a part of basic human experience.

Admittedly, one might call me a rationalist. Those who know me personally will undoubtedly say that I even verge on the “extreme” end of rationalism, the definition of which I am not always sure. But I also understand that human reality is not so idealistic. Contemporary society is by no means rational, and I tend to think of its lack of rationality as a projection of the deficit of reason on a more macro level of general human experience. Quite frankly,  it is debatable whether human beings have ever known a rational society. But the critical normative value of reason persists, and within irrational society the voice of reason remains one of the only remaining spaces for hope. In any case, understanding and agreeing with the rationalist perspective that the primacy of reason is important, I think it is also upon us to recognize the complexity of everyday human experience (that which resides outside the scientific method), and how human motivation is multidimensional and includes a significant emotional component. On the note, perhaps proponents of empathy theory are not wrong to emphasize the place of human emotion within the context of human reality. But the main issue I have with empathy theory – that is, social theory principled on the primacy or fundamental value of empathy – is that while empathic experience is generally positive, it is also severely limited. More sharply, I would argue the rejection of reason on behalf of the primacy of human emotion is incredibly misguided if not ill-judged.

On this point I was pleased to discover a recent book by Paul Bloom titled Against Empathy (2016).

Putting aside the provocative title, which is custom to the landscape of popular literature, the author’s arguments are generally well laid out. Within we read not an argument against empathy (per se) as a positive value strictly placed on the level of interpersonal relations. Rather what we read is an argument against empathy in what I would describe as its overextended use in moral philosophy.

For Bloom, the notion of empathy that he is “most interested in is the act of feeling what you believe other people feel–experiencing what they experience. This is how most psychologists and philosophers use the terms” (pp. 3-4). Picking up on how it is a popular trend these days to identify empathy as an ultimate philosophical value, a pure source of moral guidance, what we read in Bloom’s book is a counter-argument about how the value of empathy is insufficient on a much larger level. To put it tersely, empathy in the purely emotional sense of its definition is analytically weak. In my own words, it does not in and of itself serve the purpose of constructing a foundation for progressive social philosophy; and by no means does it by itself lead to supporting a more rational social world.

There are a number of ways to unpack these assertions. Bloom offers many illustrations in his book, including the example of charity. This is a good example to run with, because we can also deepen Bloom’s account of charity in the process of exploring some of the positive implications of his thesis. To start, an obvious question arises: what makes for an effective charity drive? Simply put, it is their emotive appeal and call for action. Charities often explicitly target message so as to ensure that their advertisements evoke an emotional response. People describe this as “pulling at the heartstrings”. This is because charities often depend on the human capacity to empathize – the emotional base of human empathy. Thus their campaigns and infomercials often explicitly aim to create or foster a moment of empathic experience – an emotionally charged response of action, often in the sense of contributing a donation or signing a petition.

The very same description can be applied to the ethical consumer movement, where at times the motivation seem much more emotional than rationally considerate. Think, for instance, of the push toward Biodynamic farming. This alternative agricultural technique is on the rise, energized in part by the ethical consumer movement; but it is not without valid concern. Indeed, there are many science-based questions about the legitimacy of biodynamic farming practices. Could it be that, underlying this issue, is another case of how consumers, including or perhaps especially conscious consumers, make emotion-based choices instead of science-based ones? Perhaps this tendency resides at the heart of the struggle to maintain a sense of lucidity within the conscious consumer movement. And this is one of many areas where Bloom’s book can be applied.

Moreover, and on the basis of my crude sketch, an interesting question arises pertaining to the rationale of the operation of charity within society. Again, to approach the matter in a very analytical way, charities of course do a lot of good. This statement is obvious. Charities and non-profit campaigns are generally well intentioned and can have a great effect on a local and national level. But let us for a moment consider the complexities of economic inequality as a focus of charity. Can it not also be said, in terms of a much more systemic and rational analysis, that the human goal should be the elimination of inequality at its roots, as opposed to relying on charitable initiatives for the purpose of generating financial aid to patch the deficits of modern political-economic system? Is this question not the obvious rational point of enquiry?

To approach it differently: does the reality of economic inequality not demand systemic solutions that target the roots of its causality?To Bloom’s point, empathy in and of itself is not analytically substantive or expansive enough to ask these questions. In other words, it does not signify ratiocinative qualities of unbiased critical thinking and rational and evidence-based analysis. It is not empirical, scientific or rationally substantive. Nor is empathic experience motivated by fact or systematic assessment of reality; thus in no way is it necessarily substantially considerate.

Allow me to ask the obvious question in another way: Without the fully realized ability to reason, to think critically, what effective purpose does empathy serve? Likewise, the argument goes, what purpose does charity really serve when it comes to particular issues like economic inequality? It may help ease the economic burdens of an individual or a family, and this can no doubt be lifesaving. To make it clear: I am in no way devaluing what positives charities contribute in this regard. But when it comes to the larger systemic picture, the entire dynamic existence of charity and the emotional basis on which it operates, is there not an argument toward the requirement of a much deeper analysis and line of consideration?.

I think this is an interesting point of thought, one that we could re-employ in the context of Bloom’s book. He does a terrific job at exploring the limits of empathy along similar lines, which leads him to make the case for a notion of “rational compassion”. I think this is an incredibly important concept, which resonates with my own thesis in Society and Social Pathology that was angling toward what I now consider to be a notion of cognitive empathy (which I basically take to mean the same thing).

Continuing to preserve the positive role empathic experience might play strictly on an interpersonal level, how I interpret Bloom’s book is that, empathy itself does not offer the necessary conceptual tools to think through, analyse and ultimately assess social issues in the detailed, evidenced-based and comprehensive manner required. Empathy is not necessarily critical or comprehensive in terms of a cognitive-rational process of assessment. Empathy does not imply rationally contemplative, critical or substantive consideration. As an emotional response it can have an incredibly narrow scope. Empathy can even also be prejudiced and it can be manipulated to serve other’s interests. Ultimately it is a weak guide in the face of complex moral dilemmas. What’s also interesting about this argument is how it may connect to a deeper philosophical analysis regarding the current deficit of social rationality. Indeed, I believe one can draw a direct connection between Bloom’s book and the more broad claims that what is also required today is a historical and cultural renewal of reason and rationality as core progressive social philosophical values. But I’ll save that for later.

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I would like to take a moment to expand on a few of my comments. It is not that empathy is useless or redundant. Likewise, it is not that empathy isn’t important or that it is not a key guiding value of progressive social philosophy. This essay is not meant to serve the suggestion that empathy doesn’t play a role in maintaining some semblance of sanity in human life. The fact of the matter remains that an overwhelming body of evidence and research confirms the importance of empathy on the level of interpersonal relations, from psychotherapy to medical practice to education and special needs. Even progressive values such as restorative justice or, perhaps more broadly, the very idea of democracy contains to whatever degree a notion of empathy in addition to a notion of compassion and rationality. On the basis of everything we currently know, from anthropology through to developmental psychology and beyond, it would seem fairly safe to suggest that a healthy society is generally one that culturally fosters a high degree of social empathy. Contemporary proponents of empathy and its social importance do not appear wrong in this regard. It is only that, at least to my mind, empathy can become over-valued. Or, to put it another way, it is overextended beyond the effectiveness of its range. Thus in taking from Bloom, the argument put forth here is that while empathy has a very real social value, reason and the notion of rational compassion are also absolutely vital. Inasmuch that it may be safe to conclude that a healthy (or less pathological) society is one that fosters a high degree of social empathy, so too it would seem safe to conclude that a healthy society is generally one that culturally fosters a high degree of individual and social rationality. In this sense what we’re talking about is very much a deep, integral, complex and many-sided developmental account.

I think most moderate and rationally sensible people would agree on the basis of evidence that progressive social philosophy, much like a progressive theory of ethics, is grounded to some degree in the social-culture promotion and fostering of empathic experience and intimate social relations. But empathy is not going to solve the many issues we face in relation to climate change. Empathy and its sociocultural increase is not going to solve potentially pending energy crises, systemic poverty, or the inequalities of health. It won’t serve to ensure humanities defense against a possible future asteroid, or put humans on mars, or help us identify the chemistry of sustainable materials or the cure for preventable diseases.

To this point, I like Bloom’s idea of rational compassion. Moral decisions are not purely empathic decisions. Inasmuch as they depend to a large degree on critical thinking and, impliedly, a form of meditating subjectivity, moral decisions should also necessarily be considered as rational, evidence-based and comprehensive systemic decisions in the sense of their relation to the larger social picture. Empathy, which, itself, on a policy level, can become a purely reactionary principle of moral action, lacks the necessary rational and critical normative basis of systemic or comprehensive evaluation. And this, in a very crude and summarized way, is one of the fundamental issues when it comes to contemporary theories that rely solely on empathy and empathetic experience as source of moral and ethical action, as Bloom notes.

Simply put, social theories of empathy become too one-dimensional, and they lack integration into a more coherent and complex view. And for these reasons, among others, my arguments in Society and Social Pathology could perhaps be considered somewhat akin to Bloom’s book: namely, that the practice of social empathy and reason should be considered in a very reticulate way. We may call this “rational compassion” or cognitive empathy or whatever; but the main point, for me, is the underlining basis that is the human capacity to reason. This is why, in my own study on social pathology, I spent a significant amount of time describing irrationality and the social deficit of reason, especially in relation to a form of social critique and within the frame of developmental psychology. But I think an even deeper point is that a less pathological society, one which reconciles the deficit of reason, is one that would evidence not just a high degree of cultural empathy but an even higher degree of social rationality. And in my book on pathology, this was described primary through the notion of the mediating subject.

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Having said all that, I think Bloom’s book could be expanded and deepened in several ways. My first point of reflection begins with consideration within the boundaries of philosophy of reason.

One senses that there are a number of moments of tension in the Bloom’s analysis. One reason for this, I think, has to do with how the social world isn’t quantifiable in the same way as nature, and for this reason it is easy to anticipate the criticism I’ve read of Against Empathy, namely that it verges on being what a section of philosophers describe as “positivist”. This is actually I term I tend to see a lot in social philosophy, and it is not always easy to understand what it means. Part of the problem, I think, has to do with the complications associated with attempts to purely translate or reemploy the successes of natural science methodologies within the domain of social research and analysis. The difficulty, as I understand it, can perhaps be better expressed in methodological terms. “Positivism”, or “positivist epistemology”, which I would differentiate from positivist social theory, is a highly effective tool within the natural sciences. It is an important epistemology; but when utilized in the study of social phenomena and relations, including the study of human beings, this epistemology is criticized as being limited. The study of social phenomena, of the social world, is different than studying objects of nature. As a physics student, I often think for instance of the difference between the study of a natural phenomenon way out in the cosmos – or the study of the tangled web that is gravity – and the study of something like human migration and economy. Human beings have agency, society too, as one learns through a thorough study of sociology, is the product of a complex interplay of the relationship between structure-agency. A positivist epistemology, as I understand it within the frame of natural science practices, comes under criticism when, what is labelled as “positivist social theory” – that is, the translation of natural science methodology as the pure means of social research methodology – throws a rational blanket over everything, failing to grasp the complexity of human consciousness and the multidimensional realities behind human action and behaviour. Human beings, social phenomena, are said to be seen atomistically with little to no recognition of the realities of social construction. Social scientific practice in this sense can often become economically reductionist when applied within the particular dynamics of the social world.

From the books I’ve read, one way to describe the issue in methodological terms is how when trying to translate the undeniably successful methodologies and epistemologies withing the natural sciences into the domain of social research and study, it’s basically like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I don’t always know what to make of these debates. Being a science student and an individual committed to the natural sciences, as well as an individual widely read in social science, I would suggest in the very least that it would be beneficial to differentiate the useful and effective positivist epistemology we commonly use in the natural sciences, with “positivist social theory”. In critical theory and in critical sociology, the two tend to be conflated or confused and this, I think, is a mistake because what’s good about positivist epistemology gets lost.

Whatever one thinks of these arguments, a critical reader of Bloom’s book will certainly raise concern about how certain moments of argumentation verge toward “positivist social views”.

To avoid the possibility of such charges in the future, perhaps it is useful on a methodological level to see the study of the social world and the study of the natural world as separate complex entities, however much they may also find points of interrelation. While quantifiable in certain ways, the social world has its own complexities and the underlying realities aren’t entirely appropriate for natural scientific methodology. Coming from the perspective of the natural sciences, when I read social philosophy and theory and the perspectives offered in relation to philosophy of science, I often read how scientific methodology easily becomes an ideological extension of society within the domain of social research; because “positivist epistemology” isn’t able to reflect on itself and the facts its social research discloses. In other words: there is a broad range of literature that argues how, the direct translation of natural scientific methodologies into the field of social scientific study, often becomes subservient or an extension of the social status quo. Many popular commentators have also pointed out how it often produces too much of a one-dimensional view of human society. We observe strange theories such as those based on the view of human beings a “rational maximizers”, which seems to neglect the fact that everyday human experience is much more convoluted and messy. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a wonderful line, which I interpret in a similar way: namely about why so many people seem to struggle with even basic mathematics, speculating that it is because human beings are not necessarily purely logical beings. It’s hard to argue against him. What else is modern history if not a simultaneous celebration of modern reason and the value of human rationality in addition to an ongoing struggle to understand the deficit of reason and the problem social irrationality?

It is interesting to reflect on these debates. I think one of the simple lessons within the history of social science, to use a very obvious example, is that when trying to understand the complexities of the social world, we cannot completely expunge human emotion from human life. If what people call “social positivist philosophy” becomes too hardened and one-dimensional in terms of a strictly behavioural view, perhaps what we lose sight of is the role human emotion plays in human experience and the complexities of impact and causality with regards to structure-agency. And this connection would make some sense. Behaviouralism, as a social philosophy, in the sense of its social philosophical designation, relates very much to a particular philosophical paradigm that attempts to translate the insights of natural science to an analysis of human social behaviour.

In physics, chemistry, and so on modern scientific knowledge is unparalleled. The scientific method is undoubtedly one of the great human epistemological accomplishments, which has resulted in an exponential increase in knowledge. But we if take seriously the idea that the study of the social world requires, however subtly, its own unique approach. Is this the same as saying that social research cannot learn from the natural sciences, preserving important concepts or values as objectivity and the generation of objective knowledge about social phenomena? Can it not also integrate natural science methodologies and epistemologies? If the ontology of the social world is different than the natural one, as are the basic dynamic-structures and systems. with issues of meta-theory, epistemology, aetiology, the role of theory, explanation and prediction – surely a progressive framework for social research would have at its foundation the lessons of natural science, the core value of empirical research and evidenced-based thought.

In this sense, if the social sciences are largely considered to be in state of disarray because its prevailing methodologies and frameworks have yet to grasp accurate methodologies, techniques, and certainly also a mature epistemology – perhaps an example of social science research can be found in what is called social systems theory and systems thinking. When analyzing the social world, as a good science-driven systems researcher would do, complexities involving structure-agency, subject-object, individual-collective, universal-particular, qualitative-quantitative, seem to take on a unique complexity. Scientifically driven, it is one example of what I would describe as good contemporary social science; but the problem is that it is few and far between, especially in mainstream social science, which is being increasingly overrun by poststructural and postmodern perspectives with their hypertheoretical, hyperspectulative and meaningless jargon.

With these considerations in mind, maybe what is left to be said is that philosophy of social science must also be adjusted. What doesn’t help, as alluded earlier, is that the social world is  drenched in emotion. It’s largely pathological, often irrational, and its history is almost constantly entrenched in ideology and the battle of “worldviews”. Additionally, even from the side of research practice and analysis, it is easier for the social scientist to become entwined in systems of power and political worldviews, for the concept of objectivity and truth seem to so easily erode within the social sciences. We see it all time, and often it is because the individual subject is more heavily mediated or invested in the social world and the social issues that constitute his or her sociohistorical-cultural context. The natural sciences doesn’t face the same degree of tension, even though it is not entirely free from or autonomous to sociohistorical-cultural contexts (a topic for discussion at a later time).

In the natural sciences I find that it is easier for us to preserve the primacy of reason, the parameters of rational analysis and debate, and the process by which the scientific community can reach consensus. Perhaps this is also because science often acts as a sort of corrective against human error, such as the creeping inclination for instance toward “confirmation bias” (a notion I’ll return to later). In the social world however, even concepts of reason and truth become so deeply socially mediated, that it is not uncommon for an irrational politician, an ideologue or dogmatist, to make claim to the voice of reason and rationality. What were originally progressive, critical and reasonable movements can easily become extremist, while extremist movements are at times seen as “reasonable”. The social world is one where people fight for values, and thus prejudice is freely and openly celebrated. An individual can take up the progressive cause to preserve a piece of natural landscape from exploitation by an oil corporation, standing for the need for the generation of clean energy and against extreme environmental degradation. But that person can also easily lose sight of rational debate and analysis. Instead their position can also become one between opposing forces reduced to political opinion and “difference of values”. Likewise, the same can be said for reactionary movements, which tend to be primarily based in ideology and operate within the realm of anti-reason. Here, the objective is to intentionally reduce debate to opinion, to prejudiced subjectivity, because more often than not reality and fact for reactionary movements – such as “climate deniers” – is an inconvenient truth. But ideology can be found throughout the whole of the social political world, and each scenario can be crossed to the other.

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In response to these problems, an intriguing alternative paradigm is presently emerging (especially in the UK) under the designation “critical realism”. I am by no means an expert reader, but from my understanding this emerging paradigm seeks to offer a considerable engagement with both a “positivist” and “critical approach” within the field of philosophy of social science. In postulating an interface between the study of the natural and social worlds – to assist the translation of natural science methodologies and epistemologies within the domain of social research and participation – it provides a meta-theory at the intersections of philosophy of science, ontology, epistemology, and aetiology (to name a few). Furthermore, it would be interesting to hear an informed scholar’s view of how its combination of transcendental realism with critical naturalism could offer a more thorough sense of an alternative social theoretical paradigm. The speculation here is emphasized further in relation to the question of integration without losing sight of the primacy of reason, something which I’ve discussed in other places.

To deepen our considerations: Critical realism, on my understanding, seems to want to take serious the reconciling of the extensive list of issues at the heart of philosophy of social science. Refreshingly, it doesn’t appear to be sociologically relativistic. Thus, one could perhaps see it as avoiding the traps discussed in relation to other books I’ve critique in recent time. Secondly, and in relation to a number of recent publications, including Bloom’s Against Empathy, on my reading critical realism appears to recognize a critique of positivist social theory without completely rejecting the value of positivist epistemology and, in turn, also accommodate a humanistic and integrative view of the total human subject. Likewise, too, it maintains the primacy of reason, even when opening discourse up to the notion of integration.

In addition to this last comment, note the use of the term “integration”, which connects to what was touched on earlier and what will be discussed a little later. This is something I’ve personally struggled to frame for some time: how to honour the primacy of reason while also doing justice to an integral view of the human subject? How to do justice to reason and social rationality, while also engaging with realities pertaining to the relation of structure-agency and the role emotion might play in human decision making? In a past essay concerning a different book I considered, for example, how it is not enough to posit a holistic and integrative view if that means the primacy of reason is rejected, because what happens is that one’s position eventually succumbs to a variant of sociological relativism (even in spite of aims to preserve universal normative values).

Having said that, I see critical realism as being limited purely to the domain of social research. And it is not entirely without its own cause for critique. For instance, there are subtleties about its position on epistemology that for me don’t quite capture a progressive enough argument.

“Due to CR ontology and epistemology, (there is a ‘real’ world and it is theory-laden, not theory-determined), all explanations of reality are treated as fallible (Bhaskar, 1979), including the explanations provided by research participants, theorists and scientists. This ontological departure of CR from interpretivism becomes particularly useful for […] research in which participants offering competing explanations of a phenomenon and some must be taken as more accurate than others. For the same reason, CR epistemology may also be seen as disempowering for participants (i.e., through the implication that the scientist knows best!). However, it should not be assume that scientific explanations are always more accurate than experiential explanations – indeed, all are potentially fallible, and participants experiences and explanations of a phenomenon may in fact prove most accurate in explaining the reality. In qualitative CR research, participants’ experiences and understandings can challenge existing scientific knowledge and theory (Redman-MacLaren & Mills, 2015).” (Fletcher, A.J. (2016). Applying critical realism in qualitative research: methodology meets method. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Vo. 20, Issue 2, p. 188)

While it is not entirely inaccurate or unreasonable to suggest that all forms of knowledge and all forms of explanation may be fallible, and that even in certain situations existing scientific knowledge and theory may be challenged and proven incorrect when set against participants’ experiences and experiential understandings; there is a different way to express this whilst also ensuring the preservation of the primacy of reason and scientific knowledge. Having said that, it seems fairly clear that critical realism seeks to utilize “the ‘practice of rational judgement, wherein the researcher may need to elaborate upon (or deviate from) participants’ own interpretations in order to ‘provide fuller or more adequate interpretations’ of reality” (Parr, 2013, p.10; cited in Fletcher 2016, p.190). This suggests that the primacy of reason and scientific knowledge are in fact ultimately preserved, without the naivety of thinking that such forms of knowledge are absolute and free of the possibility of error.

With these considerations in mind, instead of devaluing positivist perspectives within the natural sciences, what the position in this essay offers in its reading of Against Empathy, is recognition of the success of positivist approaches within the natural sciences, with the caveat that attempts to directly and cleanly translate positivist approaches to social theory practice are problematic. In other words, this essay serves to speculate that perhaps the lesson to be learned is that a rationalist perspective, such as the one I often argue toward, has to be more subtle and integrative when applied within the domain of social theory and research.

Unlike positivist attempts at translating directly the success of the natural sciences to social studies, which fails to recognize social construction and the relationships between agency-structure (among other things), viewing individuals only as rational agents, critical realism could be seen to shed another light on the the struggle for a rational social world from within an integrative and holistic framework (as opposed to throwing a rational blanket over everything and pretending human beings are purely rational actors).

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Returning to Bloom’s book, I sense a bit of a tension, perhaps even naivety, behind certain passages of thought as a result of the above. His categories, his framing, does not allow for what I would describe as holistic or integrative perspective that would seem increasingly vital to social-based analysis and study. This notion of an integrative perspective takes inspiration partly from the humanist tradition, referring on one level to the view of the integrated human person. It goes back to the notion that the individual is not purely an economic means or a rational maximizer, but a complex subject in which emotion also plays a part, for better or for worse.

Such a form of rationalism, which preserves the primacy of reason and places it within a more integrative frame, serves as a reminder of the very real ongoing struggle for reason and social rationality. Reason and rationality are not taken for granted, and the human capacity to access reason is featured as a fundamentally important question.

 

To approach it differently: I think Bloom is right to make his critical intervention. But we can deepen it by recognizing that reason and social rationality – even rational compassion – very much also have a developmental component. To put it another way: the notion of rational compassion is predicated, I would argue, on the overlap between reason, rationality and the healthy status of the individual subject. Reason and social rationality are integral to progressive philosophy of the subject because they very much depend on a form of healthy subjectivity. Philosophy of reason is based, I would argue, in philosophy of the subject.

In Against Empathy there is a risk, in moments, where empathy, reason and compassion once again take on antinomical positions, when I think the progressive argument is much more advanced, subtle and perhaps imbricated.

This comes out in strange ways. For instance, I agree with other commentators that subtle moments, such as in Bloom’s use of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among a few others, as examples of “people of the heart”, as opposed to people of reason, is grossly inaccurate and simplistic. It comes, I think, from an underlying antinomical view. As one commentator put it, these individuals, particularly Gandhi and MLK, were actually very rational in their ethics.

Bloom also seems to make assertions about empathy on the level of feeling, without fully realizing that both empathy and rationality can have a common range: a deeply rational person can also be deeply empathic, in the emotional sense. The difference, and here I can only speak analytically and speculatively, would be in how emotionally defined or oriented empathy would percolate as cognitive empathy in a rational individual. If we consider the following axiom as true, namely that human emotion is integral to the human situation, perhaps the aspiration behind the social philosophical value of reason is not a complete repression of human emotion, which is arguably impossible anyway.

Rather, if there’s reason to suggest that the healthy, open, mediating subject – which I often liken to the scientific mind-set (think of the young discovering child, open and exploring) – is one that supports and fosters reason, this would suggest a more integrative perspective on human development. There is a reason why many leading psychological theories argue that the struggle for rational society is also the struggle for the healthy and reconciled subject. It is likely true that there can be rational people that are not necessarily the most emotionally developed, but there is a defined limit to this statement. Likewise, there can be people who pretend to be rational – one can think of many politicians – but are clearly biased ideologues. As a general philosophical rule, however, I think most rational, sensible and even scientifically-minded (or evidenced-based) people today that exemplify what might be described as a mediating form of subjectivity, possess, to whatever extent, an awareness of their own emotions. Awareness of one’s own emotions would seem to be important in order to rationally and objectively assess a situation or analyse a phenomenon, so as to ensure we keep a check on our own prejudices (social, theoretically, scientific or otherwise).

Following a similar logic to above. A high level of emotional empathy does not necessarily make one a good person. The same can be said in reverse. There are numerous disorders that reduce, neurologically speaking, an individual’s ability to empathize; and a low level of empathy in no way makes one a bad person or a person without progressive ethics. The point to take away from this is that the reality is much more nuanced. And really, what is required is again a deeply subtle and integrative approach.

What it all comes down to, I think, is the issue of (developmental) constitution. This was my argument in my book on pathology. What are the appropriate conditions that foster an openness and security in the individual to feel able to openly, rationally and critical enquire and engage with the world (as opposed to safeguarding “worldviews” or cognitive political ideological designations)?

In the cognitive sciences the notion of “confirmation bias” is incredibly insightful, highlighting the human tendency toward the familiar, to reject “otherwise” or any evidence that contradicts one’s established worldview. There are numerous studies in this area, and they are revealing as to how the human brain works, including in terms of the physiological effects of having one’s established views affirmed.

When reading many of the leading studies in this area, it is interesting to think more broadly in terms of societal functioning, such as in how confirmation bias seems evident in so much of general human behaviour. Think for instance of how the media functions. Black and white sensationalist statements confirming one view or another, the content of which often lacks nuance and thorough consideration of the many sides of an issue. It is opinion versus opinion, bias versus bias. It is hard to deny, especially in our present irrational social context, that confirmation bias doesn’t rule the day. Practically speaking, the difference between the positive feeling of having one’s views affirmed – and even the physiological effects of this experience – and the existential insecurity of having them challenged, is incredibly human.

But one of the issues I have with the assertions made by certain proponents of the confirmation bias thesis is how it can become reduced too much to a deterministic viewpoint. In other words, we have to keep aware of the tendency versus determinism relation. It would seem, on the basis of current evidence, that confirmation bias is a very real dimension of human experience. At the same time, it is one dimension. Another dimension is the possibility of reasoned and rational thought. While the inclination may be to reduce and absolutize the tendency toward confirmation bias and resolutely assert its reality within a deterministic frame, I think it is more accurate within the total human picture to balance this tendency with its opposite (which we can also observe, however fragile and fleeting).

There are so many wonderful examples within the sciences of individuals, even entire collectives of researchers, evidencing a very different type of subjectivity. It is a form of subjectivity, as already described – one that is open, searching, exploring, and willing to consider the possibility of “otherwise”. The excitement and anticipation of possibly discovering sometime new, this scientific experience goes against the tendency toward confirmation bias. In this sense, inasmuch that confirmation bias seem prevalent, there is also evidence of the opposite – people who are open to their own ideas being challenged, to being proven wrong, in their rational pursuit of knowledge.

Undoubtedly even the most rational person must constantly consciously remind oneself of the importance of maintaining normatively open, to thinking critically even when it comes to one’s own theories, ideas and views. The tendency toward confirmation bias seems to be always be creeping in the background. But how might we do justice to both sides, to two very different forms of experience, and two very different developmental mind-sets, and arrive closer to understanding this complex interplay of forces?

In psychology, many seem to argue that emotions play an incredibly important role in determining whether one is rationally engaged or closed, repressed and propelled by overbearing self-preservation drives. Additionally, there are some fascinating studies emerging within the neurosciences that touch on the deeper point being made here: the interrelations between psychological and biological development. What is the difference between the rational individual feeling secure in themselves to constantly challenge their own position, to consider “otherwise” and maintain an openness to the unknown, and the individual driven by the need for confirmation bias?

In engaging with the confirmation bias thesis, I would be inclined to suggest that it is important to remain nuanced and to maintain recognition of the developmental dimension of the irrational attitude and the biased-driven mind. It is possible that I am wrong in my suspicions, but if the inclination toward confirmation bias is one dimension of human experience, maintaining some space for the possibility for the realization of the free-flourishing subject and the flourishing of human reason would also seem vital.

In this age of “alternative facts”, the question begs to be asked: developmentally, what conditions would support or help foster more generally a rational subject who is open to the world and to the constant rational pursuit of knowledge? What are the appropriate social conditions that foster a more healthy, open, critical and rational subject? What are the appropriate social conditions to support and foster “rational compassion”, to use Bloom’s words, or cognitive empathy, which allows for principled, enlightened and evidence-based thought about nature, the social world, and the many complex systemic social issues we face?

To argue that there is a deficit of cognitive empathy – or “rational compassion” – is essentially to argue, by way of inference, that there is a deficit of reason. Holding on to this, it is then interesting to ask what proponents of empathy theory might be responding to in terms of our modern social reality. In asking this question their ideal seems to be a projection of something much more than purely empathic experience on an interpersonal level. A lot of the literature I have read seems to want to extract an entire social theory or foundational social philosophy. Empathy in this  philosophically ultimate sense is perhaps closer in its symbolic meaning to the notion of rational compassion. I say this in the sense that, philosophically, the social value of empathy seems to symbolize more than its strict definition: a certain sensitivity of experiential relations akin to what some philosophers describe as the subject-subject plane of experience. When framed in this way, perhaps there is some compromise as to what both sides seem to be hinting: I would synthesize this as an alternative or perhaps more reconciled mode of experience, which is phenomenologically sensitive, rationally considerate and investigative, fluidly shifting between the subject-subject and subject-object paradigms. As this is only speculation, I’ll leave the thought open for consideration.

As a whole, and in sum, in many popular books that treat empathy as a sort of pure source of moral goodness, one senses that what the respective authors are reacting to is the deficit of something vitally important to healthy societal functioning. There is a lack, a void – a deficit of compassionate, considerable thought as well as a lack of a certain sensitivity of experience and a sensitivity of astute observation and intimate relations (with all things) that very much comprises the idea of a lived ethics. There is a systemic deficit of moral thought and action, in addition to a prevailing hardened subject. The contemporary social world is one of largely irrational action, growing increasing defined by the prevalence of hardened social attitudes. And so the inclination is to identify a positive value, such as empathy, to fill the void. The point of critique, taken from Bloom, is that it is an error to fill this void with some emotional ideal. But in considering the above reflections, perhaps one way to reconcile the debates is through the notion of integration and an integrative philosophy of reason?

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With these contextual points in place, it is not insufficient to now state that my main complaint with Bloom’s book: the account of “reason” and “rationality” is in no way advanced enough. What I mean by this is that it struggles to reconcile or address the differences between the irrefutable success of the natural sciences and its methodologies with the unique dynamics and methodologies of social research. In this regard, Bloom’s book can be seen to serve too much as a useful target of critique for those weary of “positivist social philosophy”. In defending the primacy of reason this is something one must safeguard against.

The problem, to put it very simply, has to do with a lack of integration. Subtle instances of this lack appear in passing moments, such as in Bloom’s example of the starving child on p. 106, in which we read: “The niceties of personal contact are far less important than actually saving lives”. It’s not fair to isolate this statement and draw conclusions or criticism – I’m simply suggesting that subtly, nuance and an integrated view are constantly required, and it is this more progressive epistemology about where methodology meets social research method that at times lacks in Against Empathy.

Additionally, and in passing, Bloom’s book also lacks reflection in relation to the notion of critical rationality. For instance, in the odd passing sentence in which Bloom will make a statement about morality, or “violence and cruelty”, his view seems to lack critical awareness. When reading Bloom’s book one is inclined to ask: morality for whom and for what end? The answer, for me, is critical: Morality like philosophy of history – the normative universal enlightenment values integral to modern (social) reason and the modern scientific project – are based on a progressive and transformative social philosophy. Reason, as an emancipatory social philosophical concept, is ultimately based on or inspires the struggle for a more humane, egalitarian world. I say this on the basis not because reason is biased or prejudiced toward a particular political agenda, but because, in being a reader of the enlightenment philosophes, reason and rationality are also indicative of the presence of critical thought.

To approach the matter in another way: according to what normative criteria is the telos of morality considered? Perhaps the answer is that it is a means itself, just as reason should be a means itself. Therefore, in making the important case for “rational compassion”, which, I take to be a vital concept positively set in direct opposition to pathological society, maybe the that end rational compassion serves is no end at all. Maybe it harks back to the enlightenment notion of “progress”, which is seen as critical and open-ended. I favour this view, inasmuch as that I favour the view that modern science is also a means itself, which ought to be free of any ideological bias or ends.

I think a progressive account is one that considers social reason, in the enlightenment sense, as a fundamentally critical operation. Today, though, it can easily become conformist, which serves as an important reminder for us all: is one’s notion of “reason” really “reason” at all? Is human rationality not, first and foremost, the capacity to think through a problem in all its complexity and dimensions, given whatever wealth of evidence currently available? And is this not, inherently, also a critical process, a means in itself? I am not necessarily challenging or criticizing Bloom here. But these questions and reflections serve as an important point of reflection. Just like empathy can be prejudiced or manipulated to serve biased or ideological interests, so too can an uncritical notion of reason.

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In closing, Bloom’s book offers an incredibly important contribution to contemporary debates. Reason, rationality, truly critical thinking – the current social deficit of these important values on behalf of totalized “worldviews” and dogmatic political and economic ideologies, is one of the basic characteristic of pathological thought. And that is because pathological thought, or subjectivity, is often closed, hardened and repressed. Cognitive empathy or “compassionate reason” implies the opposite: an open, free-flourishing, critical and rational subject akin to the scientific mind-set. Empathy has a place too in the more total picture. But empathy or compassion without analytics, without reason and rationality, and without critical evidenced-based thought offers nothing constructive in the grand scheme of things.

In other words: in entering the empathy debates, one can say that what gives reason its emphasis is that, without it, empathy means very little. If irrational, reactionary, and self-destructive patterns and trends are characteristic of much of the contemporary social world, as many argue, the deficit of reason and the lack of truly rational deliberation and discourse is without a doubt the fundamental matter at hand. This issues surrounding this deficit are complex, but the pathological lack of the daily capacities for rationality and compassion ultimately take precedence to a lack of empathy. One cannot have an empathic social world within an irrational societal context.

In this sense one could add in conclusion that the struggle for a more rational social world, a world that is compassionate in a truly considerate and constructively analytical sense – this is also the struggle for a healthy social world and a positive form of social development. Here, we should reintroduce the importance of humanistic philosophy, of which reason has long been an integral and leading member. There are aspects of Bloom’s book in which the internal logic of arguments seems to recognize this point. Concern for other’s welfare, which I agree is more of a mark of compassion than of empathy, is fundamentally indicative of reason and rationality in its social practice, and the entirety of such a social vision is ultimately a fundamental humanistic one (in a very direct enlightenment sense). And yet, to foster social conditions conducive for increasing social rationality, we learn when looking through the lens of social pathology that these conditions appeal to social dynamics that foster healthy, open and mediating subjectivity.

Thus, in the end, the struggle for a rational society raises deep searching questions regarding the status of the contemporary social world, its structures and systems and therefore also the general status of knowledge and subjectivity. It raises developmental questions about the effects of pathological society and about the health and status of the individual, and whether people generally feel secure enough in themselves to feel open to the world, and to the existential challenges of what it means to be rational in practice. When I think of a science inspired vision of society, I think of a form of social practical and debate that would be open and constantly surveying, rooted in evidence and deep consideration. Science inspires the idea of social engagement and deliberation based on facts, on evidence, and on the constant normative consideration and evaluation of phenomena – that is, a constant knowledge forming process. Modern science much like the enlightenment project in general – they inspire, at least for me, a vision based on a very real and materially substantive philosophy of the subject. And one can imagine how this subjectivity, this epistemology – this alternative way of experiencing the world, set against drives toward confirmation bias and the preservation of worldviews – could be the underpinning of an almost natural egalitarian, democratic process of social thought and deliberation. In many ways, this type of social philosophical vision, these basic normative values, represent the lasting legacy of the enlightenment. Long may that legacy continue to inspire, and long may modern science continue to invigorate the idea of a hopeful future.