The Shortcomings of Empathy

Previous blogs have included many good comments on empathy.  Perhaps one of the primary ones, is that humans excel a empathy and computers are short on empathy.  Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University says that people who think that empathic concern is an unalloyed force for good are wrong.  The problem is that empathy is a spotlight and is very narrow.  It illuminates the suffering of a single person rather than the fate of millions.  It is more concerned with the here and now than with the future.  Bloom goes on to say, “It’s because of empathy that we care more about, say, the plight of a little girl trapped in a well than we do about potentially billions of people suffering or dying from climate change.”   According to the article, Morality 2.0 by Dan Jones in the September 26, 2015 New Scientist,  empathy’s shortcomings are compounded by the fact that we end up pointing its beam on cause that come into our field of view.  These are typically the most newsworthy moral issues rather than those where we can do the most good.

There is also a general belief that our brains are wired to be empathic.  This accounts for our success as a species.  But, again, the problem is the narrowness of our empathy beam.  Conflict among groups, be they tribes, nations, religions, or even professional organizations is the rule rather then the exception.  Our record is one of the abuse and even the enslavement of others who we believe “do not belong.”

The New Scientist article discusses a variety of means of prodding humans to make more meaningful moral choices.  It concludes with the following statement:  “Moral issues are complicated and hard, and they involve serious trade-offs and deliberation.  it would be be better if people thought more about them.”

It strikes me that non-empathic computer technology might be of considerable assistance. The problem of addressing the wide variety of moral needs in an efficient manner is an enormous computational task. one that is certainly beyond an individual human’s intellect, and is perhaps beyond the capacity of the collective intellect of humanity.  Humans could program their empathic concerns into computers.  Computers could then  compute enormous cost/benefit analysis.  Humans could then discuss and debate how resources could best be used to address these human and planetary needs.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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2 Responses to “The Shortcomings of Empathy”

  1. russvane3 Says:

    Doug,

    Definitely agree with your computational approach to empathy. Empathy can’t just be a feeling, but must include at some level an assessment of capacity to change a situation. Sort of like Aquinas’ Just War Theory. At least that’s my first point. As you know I am working on a table mechanism to represent pros and cons of situational analysis.

    Cheers, Russ rrv: Edits in red (four letters) bracketed by ‘’.

    Previous blogs have included many good comments on empathy. Perhaps one of the primary ones, is that humans excel a empathy and computers are short on empathy. Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University says that people who think that empathic concern is an unalloyed force for good are wrong. The problem is that empathy is a spotlight and is very narrow. It illuminates the suffering of a single person rather than the fate of millions. It is more concerned with the here and now than with the future. Bloom goes on to say, “It’s because of empathy that we care more about, say, the plight of a little girl trapped in a well than we do about potentially billions of people suffering or dying from climate change.” According to the article, Morality 2.0 by Dan Jones in the September 26, 2015 New Scientist, empathy’s shortcomings are compounded by the fact that we end up pointing its beam on cause that come into our field of view. These are typically the most newsworthy moral issues rather than those where we can do the most good.

    There is also a general belief that our brains are wired to be empathic. This accounts for our success as a species. But, again, the problem is the narrowness of our empathy beam. Conflict among groups, be they tribes, nations, religions, or even professional organizations is the rule rather th n the exception. Our record is one of the abuse and even the enslavement of others who we believe “do not belong.”

    The New Scientist article discusses a variety of means of prodding humans to make more meaningful moral choices. It concludes with the following statement: “Moral issues are complicated and hard, and they involve serious trade-offs and deliberation. t would be be better if people thought more about them.”

    It strikes me that non-empathic computer technology might be of considerable assistance. The problem of addressing the wide variety of moral needs in an efficient manner is an enormous computational task. one that is certainly beyond an individual human’s intellect, and is perhaps beyond the capacity of the collective intellect of humanity. Humans could program their empathic concerns into computers. Computers could then compute enormous cost/benefit analysis. Humans could then discuss and debate how resources could best be used to address these human and planetary needs.

    © Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015.

    >

  2. russvane3 Says:

    Doesn’t Dan make empathy different from what it is? Empathy does not have to be narrow beamed or short focused. His argument feels like a ‘strawman.’ Caring about people in a tsunami may be far away and long-reaching.
    I very much like your idea of intelligent augmentation – using computation to keep our values uppermost when selecting strategies to implement, but this is true regardless of how we feel about others.

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