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Selective Empathy Can Chip Away at Civil Society (kqed.org)
93 points by laurex on April 20, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 76 comments



What about the hypothesis that focusing on empathy is the problem, rather than its application the cure?

Gloomy as it is to say, technological superiority has been very comfortable but doesn't offer any new way of tackling the fact that humans are basically the same as they have been for the last millennium; large groups of people who simply are not going to agree with each other.

What is important is maintaining the institutions that have been wildly successful in mediating conflict between diverse groups, and that all the different tribes of a society make an effort to accept that institutions are more fair and reasonable than the alternatives.

Empathy does not resolve genuine disagreements. If it solves a problem, the problem was one of perception rather than reality.


>What is important is maintaining the institutions that have been wildly successful in mediating conflict between diverse groups...

Trust is what maintains societal institutions. Trust in the institutions. Unfortunately, trust has been eroded significantly all around the world. I suspect that this erosion was intentional, the result of highly effective propaganda campaigns being waged by different governments against each other. Ironically, these campaigns are so effective at eroding trust because of the efficiencies that our technological advances have contributed to their prosecution.

Personally, I'm not sanguine that trust will return. Couple these professional manipulation campaigns with the very real degradation of professionalism within many societal institutions and you can see the very clear challenges ahead. Without trust, you just can't get there. And in the face of these manipulation campaigns, without professionalism, you'll be challenged to get any level trust back.

It's just too easy right now for these campaigns to point out the lack of professionalism. (BTW, we should be shining a light on corruption etc. I'm just pointing out what I see as a problem with building trust.)


Excellent point. I find it notable that in spite of the trend you cite those who are empowered by the faltering institutions seem to feel no urgency to regain (or re-earn) trust.

Maybe this is the result of years of such institutions attracting those who simply wish to wield authority and gradually replacing the culture of earned authority with one of opportunistic, or “sold” authority.


The silver lining of this cloud is that it acts as a selection force on institutions, too: If people are harder to pacify, institutions have to step up their game and deliver, or failing that, market themselves better. And that parallels a broad trend that's been in place since antiquity: building sustainable institutions instead of succumbing to warlords and despots. Legal codes, religious orders, and so forth have built up a vast underlying structure to face the ordinary challenges of humanity at its worst. There's nothing to suggest that that trend ends because we have some new gadgets.

But it takes place as a reaction, a series of rapid cultural changes. I would say that we had such a shift take place post-2008: besides the economy, the smartphone era took off and everyone since then has contended with a new status quo of limited privacy, temporary status, broad-not-deep social networks, and a constant background noise of gossip and scandal. Have we gotten better at navigating this world since 2008? Absolutely, I would say. In the first four-to-five years we had a whole bunch of theories about a massively connected world get tested in reality, culminating in stories such as Anonymous, Wikileaks, Arab Spring, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and Gamergate. The years since then have seen various reactions to those stories play out as one major figure after another gets embroiled in scandal.

Even if this is fostered by state actors, the overall effect is one of "boiling down" institutions to their basic premise, where they are easier to challenge, as the arrangements that locked them in before get severed.

And I think the public recognizes that to some degree - the low empathy comes in combination with a renewed interest in a private approach to philosophy, rather than a collective one - a sense that existing institutions fundamentally don't have the right answers and something has to be done. We're merely acting in accordance with the times.


And we should all pretend that the internet resolves conflicts at any level? I think the widescale lack of communicating without empathizing pheromones is quite obviously making a shitstorm of the whole wide world. But keep culting with your bad self.


> I think the widescale lack of communicating without empathizing pheromones is quite obviously making a shitstorm of the whole wide world.

I rather believe that deep empathy for your own groups is the cause of many shitstorms. To quote from the article:

"For example, we often think of terrorists as shockingly blind to the suffering of innocents. But Breithaupt and other researchers think of them as classic examples of people afflicted with an "excess of empathy. They feel the suffering of their people.""


But the inability to infringe on the rights of others is not itself an infringement of any actual right. That is an impossible lesson to be learned by us here in the west.


> And we should all pretend that the internet resolves conflicts at any level?

A lot of people believe so and unfortunately some policy-makers as well. I thought the book https://www.amazon.com/Net-Delusion-Dark-Internet-Freedom/dp... made a good argument against cyber-utopianism.


As does Yasha Levine's Surveillance Valley. https://surveillancevalley.com/

And I realize anti-establishment innuendo is taboo here, but if yc is focused on bringing forth more products and services to the world, then doing so without understanding what things the world may honestly want or need, without some pretext of empathy for the source of those wants and needs, is as reprehensible as it is ineffective. When nobody today is satisfied, to the extent the richest man Bezos feels the need to upgrade his life partner, then we are not doing ourselves any justice in thinking technology can either save or replace dying virtue.


>What about the hypothesis that focusing on empathy is the problem, rather than its application the cure?

This is the thesis of the aptly named book "Against Empathy" by Paul Bloom. I always highly recommend it to everybody whenever I get the chance, because the thought that this might even be a possibility seldom ever crosses many people's minds.


>What is important is maintaining the institutions that have been wildly successful in mediating conflict between diverse groups, and that all the different tribes of a society make an effort to accept that institutions are more fair and reasonable than the alternatives.

Dred Scot Vs. Sandford

Plessy vs Fergusson

In short we can not agree that institutions have mediated anything, nor that they are even remotely fair.

Sometimes, quite often actually, no real compromise is possible, unless you consider half a glass of poison and half a glass of water is an acceptable compromise between drinking a glass of water and a glass of poison.

The reason for the current issues in the US is that the various groups have now discovered that no, they can't live and let live.


> Empathy does not resolve genuine disagreements.

Empathy enables compromise.

Many disputes cannot be resolved to the full satisfaction of all parties, short of spawning a parallel universe for each sentient.


Why would you want to "mediate conflict" with a group who isn't strong enough to be a significant threat to you? There are more than one way to resolve disagreements.


> What is important is maintaining the institutions that have been wildly successful in mediating conflict between diverse groups

As another commenter remarked as well, there is no point in maintaining mediating institutions if you're not ready to accept the fact that a mediation is a fair resolution between opposing perspectives and needs. In other words, if you have no empathy for the others, any mediation is unfair, and any institution promoting it is essentially flawed.


Accepting the results of mediating instructions doesn’t require empathy, it requires a deference to rules-based process and a commitment to be bound. To use the US as an example, our social empathy has never been higher, whereas our commitment to mediating institutions is at historic lows. (Especially to the highly empathetic left, our mediating institutions have become mere means to ends.)


To the left's chagrin, the rightists have mostly come around to this way of thinking as well. All is not lost. We can always replace old institutions with newer ones.

Previously we got the news from large news-media firms. Now we know that we should ignore those firms if the topic is of any interest to the military-industrial complex. There are now independent journalists on youtube etc. to show us e.g. that there is no food crisis in Venezuela even if CNN can't stop itself from telling that lie.


> We can always replace old institutions with newer ones.

Can you? We’ve become a country of factions and echo chambers, and our new “institutions” (Facebook, YouTube journalists, podcasters) reflect that. Institutions are easy to tear down, hard to rebuild.


> our social empathy has never been higher

Ha. Well, that's the opposite of what I think the article is trying to say: social empathy is at its highest for those who are on your side, those you agree with, for your friends. But it's zero for your enemies: depending on which side you're on, think of your empathy towards Trump, or Clinton, or Weinstein, or the "social justice warriors". So it's "selective empathy". The selective empathy might be at its highest, but empathy in general seems to have declined. Maybe to the point you don't even think anymore it should be included in a measure of "empathy".

> a deference to rules-based process and a commitment to be bound

Sorry if I stress that again, but why would you commit to be bound if these institutions are meant to mediate between you and somebody you have no empathy for, somebody who is absolutely wrong, somebody you hate?

To give you an extreme example of what I mean, would you accept to be bound by the decisions of an institution that is dedicated to finding a middle ground between you and child rapists? Or would you say that since any middle ground with child rapists is unacceptable, the institution's itself unacceptable?


> What is important is maintaining the institutions that have been wildly successful in mediating conflict between diverse groups

This is indeed very important, but "empathy", while not such an institution, is a baseline cultural requirement to make these institutions feasible and sustainable in the longer run. There's not much ambiguity here; intensely tribal, closed and corrupt societies do a lot worse at managing conflicts (e.g. consider the Middle East, and why violent conflicts flare up so often there), not just empathy.


How does this explain Europe, which was the most frequently and destructively violent place in the world for hundreds of years until fairly recently?


"Most frequently and destructively violent" seems like European exceptionalism to me. Yes there's been lots of wars in Europe, but it's not like other parts of the world have been free of conflict, it's just that us Western folks don't know as much about them.


I think that’s true if you look at a broader range of history, but if you look at the couple of centuries up through 1945, I don’t buy it. What other region during that period had something to rival the Napoleonic wars, the World Wars, and all the other European wars of that period? It’s difficult enough to find one conflict to rival either World War (the Taiping Rebellion comes to mind, and the Asian side of the Second World War, but that’s it), let alone enough wars in the same area to match the whole period.

I am happy to be educated if I’m wrong, though!


Taiping and pacific theater were influenced by western thought.

Taiping was led by a religious Jesus inspired fanatic. Japan was just copying Germany.


>> By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!

I apologise in advance to folks in the humanities for my skepticism, but when you're quantifying something like "empathy" which is not well defined and canot be measured directly, then a quantitative difference on its own doesn't mean much. That 40% shift may be because the questionnaire itself changed over time, or because it didn't change enough with the times, or any other factor that is has nothing to do with the actual "empathy" of the subjects.

Edit: I was once given a personality test by a psychologist [for reasons I'm not at liberty to disclose, like]. One of the questions was along the lines of "a holy man can heal a patient by laying on hands: true or false?". At the time, I had no idea what that even meant. "Laying on hands"? What, like a D&D Paladin? Years later I learned that some evangelical sects in the US practice this as some kind of prayer or ritual. The personality test I took was most likely drafted originally in the US and there were many more questions that I found very confusing, like that one. So, if I had no idea what many of the questions meant, what exactly was that questionnaire supposed to be measuring? Yet I believe it was some standardised psychological test given to people around the globe.


Tribal instincts are super strong, that's been proven over and over again [citation needed]. I'm afraid long-term empathy for the sake of Other can't work. It only seems to work when people still remember major disasters and wars. It's inevitable these fade away, isn't it? (except for very, very long term, when evolution and/or genetic engineering might change this)

In my country anti-Muslim sentiment is strong, made stronger by the government and its alliance with the church. When I see people get carried away, I often recommend them to learn more about Muslims to "know your enemy better". It's a trick and I think we need further studies to see if it's more likely to backfire (people hit another group they perceive as enemy much harder because they now know their weaknesses) or work towards peace and cooperation.

(I'm not a fan of any religion myself, as for Islam my main beef is it doesn't distinguish between the religion and the secular state. It can therefore be called a form of totalitarianism)


> Tribal instincts are super strong

> I'm not a fan of any religion myself, as for Islam my main beef is it doesn't distinguish between the religion and the secular state. It can therefore be called a form of totalitarianism.

I think one major shortfall of modern discourse is that we've largely lost the ability to debate ideas (including religious claims) without incorporating tribalism and a "those people are bad" mentality. It's entirely possible to have empathy for people who believe something else and yet strongly disagree with their beliefs (and politely tell them so).


"Lost"?


> Tribal instincts are super strong, that's been proven over and over again

Tribal instincts aren't as strong as you think. Every civil and egalitarian right that people have gained since the enlightenment are the result of overcoming tribal instincts. The definition of a "tribe" is more often than not mostly a social construct. If society can set it up, it can tear it down.


The definition of tribes is a social construct. The existence of tribes is not.

Reformers who seek to abolish tribalism usually find that they've simply redrawn the boundary lines and replaced one set of tribes with another. The dogmatism of the Church gets replaced by the patriotism of the State. Racism gets replaced by classism. Discrimination on appearance gets replaced by discrimination on education.

Sometimes just this redefinition of groups is progress: I'd argue that group boundaries based upon choices or values are more useful than group boundaries based on origins or genetics. But the utopian vision of "and the world will be as one" is naive, and ignores basically all recorded history.


> Reformers who seek to abolish tribalism usually find that they've simply redrawn the boundary lines and replaced one set of tribes with another.

Spot on. It's not always (or generally) under their control either; all it takes for someone else to start calling followers of a revolutionary by some name, and a group is born.

> group boundaries based upon choices or values are more useful than group boundaries based on origins or genetics

They're also much less likely to stay as groups for long. Immutable characteristics like skin color, origin (class and nation), culture, religion or even education (which is immutable in practice for most people past the point they need to become self-sufficient in life) make your membership in a group easy to verify, and out of your control. This makes these characteristics easier targets for people to wrap their identities around. You have to accept that you're $country-of-birth-an, but you don't have to accept being anti-vaxxer - you can leave that group the minute you don't feel like being in it.


>Reformers who seek to abolish tribalism usually find that they've simply redrawn the boundary lines and replaced one set of tribes with another.

I completely agree with this. It seems as though that many(all?) people have some group that's the Other and it's acceptable to attack them in various ways. For example, it used to be socially acceptable to attack nerds, but it isn't anymore, however, people have simply picked new groups that are acceptable targets that are more specific, such as anti-PC people. What seems to have improved though, is that we seem to condone extreme measures less and less. Nerds used to be physically bullied, but that seems to be less acceptable nowadays.

While I think that the ideas of inclusiveness aren't going to work, because there's always going to be some Other that's acceptable to be demonized (eg incels right now) by the in-group, I hope that the demonization becomes less and less extreme over time.


Around here there are tons of image memes about vegans and anti-vaxers. On websites that are mostly associated with the more liberal side. Apparently not. I guess it's just a desire to unite by having a common enemy or at least a target for ridicule.


> Reformers who seek to abolish tribalism usually find that they've simply redrawn the boundary lines and replaced one set of tribes with another. The dogmatism of the Church gets replaced by the patriotism of the State. Racism gets replaced by classism. Discrimination on appearance gets replaced by discrimination on education.

These are pretty poor examples, one type of tribalism did not "replace" the other. One was knocked down, and then the next one was attacked. In the middle ages, when the Church was strong, you could be sure that classism and racism were also alive and well. When the power of the Church fell, classism and racism did not increase or replace the Church, they were just the next hurdle to tackle.

Boundaries can and do change. They can become more equitable or less equitable. Of course, it's impossible to make everyone perfectly equal, but that isn't the goal. The goal is to diminish the influence of socially constructed non-intrinsic sources of judgment.

Given how much progress there has been over the last 500 years, I find it strange that many take such a fatalistic point of view.


This is what I have problem with too. I dislike most forms of dogma, and dogmatic liberalism, freedom of faith, speech and so on can be toxic too. I mean too often it seems like it just makes taboos shift. The smile-or-die mentality, the rainbow crew of Star Trek, the outrage that Witcher rooted in ancient slavic history and myth doesn't contain black characters...

I think one of the healthiest approaches was shown by the Monty Python group. They made fun of religious people as well as of atheists.

I would like to live in a society where it's okay to make a joke about race, religion, sexual preferences and gender once in a while. Many things are fine in moderation. It's bad when someone keeps hammering one group over and over. People always told jokes about forbidden subjects. When you can't tell jokes about X at all, I think it signals a problem related to X.

I have yet to explore lectures of Jordan Petersen, but I found one of his remarks interesting. One of his studies shows many similarities between right wingers and social justice warriors.

One way to define conservatives is people who want to force most of their rules on others. One definition of liberals is people who want to enable all people to live however they want as long as it doesn't harm others. Going by these definitions, social justice warriors can be considered conservative. They've just moved to another camp.

I'm trying to say perhaps liberalism/conservatism is not the value of the variable, but the algorithm. What you do with your values. You can try to force your rules on others, or try to inspire and lead by example, or... just don't care. Or something in between.

I'm being vague and general with most of my points because comprehensive error handling can obscure the message.


A few points also to consider:

1) I haven’t personally seen outright outrage about it. I’ve seen some light criticism that there appears to be no black traders which would exist in those times, and that the characters are uniformly white while Slavic skin color is actually a range between pale and olive. These criticisms make sense to me and were not presented with anger. Could you show me example of outrage?

2) Jordan Peterson has not generally done much science lately, if at all about this subject with significant backing. He’s become more of an advocate of a specific viewpoint within his field(similar to other representatives Neil degrasse Tyson) and should not be considered an authority without several additional citations of more academically well regarded researchers. I wonder if perhaps this claim was more acceptable due to its palatability and not due to its actual veracity.

3) I agree that making jokes should eh universal, but as the OP mentioned empathy can teach someone why making a racist joke isn’t okay. Unfortunately we don’t live in a society where people make jokes but don’t actually act on them. Making jokes about oppressed groups in society, depending on their harshness, actually occurs in tandem with people tearing the same groups with harshness. For example, jokes about missing black fathers or single black mothers in America tend to be more hurtful than funny because it describes a real phenomenon where black men are disproportionately jailed and utilizes it for enjoyment. It’s similar to joking about assaulting a friend when one knows that that friend was recently stalked and assaulted by a stranger- it’s viewed as a ‘dick move’ because it is a joke that lacks empathy and understanding of ones audience. I believe this is an alternative viewpoint to your concerns that may he of interest to you to cosnsider.


> I’ve seen some light criticism that there appears to be no black traders which would exist in those times, and that the characters are uniformly white while Slavic skin color is actually a range between pale and olive.

Having been born and raised in a slavic country, I don't think I've seen a black person for the first 15 years of my life, except on TV. In a city with far more people than anything included in the Witcher. And skin color was very very close to uniformly white. So it's always fun to be told by Americans that no, actually, slavic countries have always been vibrant and diverse.


Well, there was this whole geopolitical fluffup throughout the twentieth century....


And there is evidence there were significantly more black people in slavic countries before that? Taking the example of Yugoslavia, this doesn't seem to be the case [1]. We're just assuming diversity, while demanding proof of homogeneity.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Yugoslavia#Demograp...


> Reformers who seek to abolish tribalism usually find that they've simply redrawn the boundary lines and replaced one set of tribes with another.

Yup: Also known as, "I can tolerate anyone except my outgroup" - https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/09/30/i-can-tolerate-anythin...


> Yup: Also known as, "I can tolerate anyone except my outgroup"

However, the definition of "outgroup" is almost entirely subject to society. It has changed dramatically in the last 500 years. If the definition of "outgroup" is so fluid, then the strict belief of tribalism doesn't have much merit.


Tribal politics affect every social interaction. Family tribe, social tribe, political tribe, all of these subconscious imprints play a role in how we interact (or don't interact) with other people.

I would argue that they are not only human nature, but they are emergent from a set of baser tendencies necessary for self preservation in a reality which is resource and time scarce reality.

Tribal instincts will exist so long as individual compete. That goes for social status too.


> Tribal politics affect every social interaction.

You're broadening your definition of tribal instincts to encompass all of society. Sure, people make teams based on shared social values, but those aren't really tribes in the traditional sense, i.e., you look like me and/or reside near me, therefore I will team up with you.

Under your broader definition, a "tribe" can be anything. It could even emerge based on shared social values of egalitarianism, which directly contradict the more traditional notion of a tribe.


I think you are confusing tribal instincts (ie thought patterns and emotional drives) with tribal entities (ie the emergence and labeling of tribes themselves).

A given instinct (ie predisposed thought pattern or behavioral tendency) potentially applies to everything we do. In particular, our tribal instincts don't suddenly stop affecting us just because we're interacting with something that doesn't resemble a traditional tribe.


> A given instinct (ie predisposed thought pattern or behavioral tendency) potentially applies to everything we do

Behavioral tendencies can change remarkably quickly (i.e., a single generation), rendering the entire idea of "tribes" as you posit them obsolete. It's much more effective to measure and understand those behavioral tendencies directly, and the motivations behind them, than to create arbitrary "tribes" that try to encapsulate those buckets.


> It's much more effective to measure and understand those behavioral tendencies directly, and the motivations behind them

I never suggested otherwise? The term "tribal instincts" was meant to refer to precisely that.

> Behavioral tendencies can change remarkably quickly (i.e., a single generation)

I think you have some fairly fundamental misconceptions about how deeply tribal instincts are rooted - not just in humanity, but primates and a great many other animals. They appear to be tied to evolution in a fairly direct manner. Fractals by Peter Watts is fictional but highly illustrative (https://rifters.com/real/shorts/PeterWatts_Fractals.pdf).


>> It's much more effective to measure and understand those behavioral tendencies directly

> I never suggested otherwise? The term "tribal instincts" was meant to refer to precisely that.

You have a very broad definition of a "tribe", but at the very least, I would assume that it means defining a group of people with similar interests, no? My point is that it makes more sense to define and study the interests, rather than the groups.

People have lots of different interests, some overlap with others, some do not. Analyzing the underlying interests is much more important than defining groups of people who have "similar" interests.

> I think you have some fairly fundamental misconceptions about how deeply tribal instincts are rooted - not just in humanity, but primates and a great many other animals. They appear to be tied to evolution in a fairly direct manner.

I think you have a fundamental misconception on how people are different from other animals. People can change social structures and belief systems far more quickly than any other animal can. Most animal's social structure is dictated by evolution and instincts, which take thousands of years to modify. Humans are not limited to that, and can make huge fundamental changes in 20 years without any change in genetics.


In America, I imagine this is why people promote Nationalism -- to build a sense of the American Tribe. This seemed to work especially well while we had the Soviet bogeyman. Today, attempts to describe others as 'not real Americans' is fracturing tribal unity.


A lot of our modern focus on race also dates back to such well-meaning attempts, ironically enough. There was a very real focus in the Progressive era to try and get people to see themselves as "white", in preference to their more meaningful ethnic origin - this is something that impacted people from Germany and other parts of central Europe quite a bit, because of how wide-spread anti-German sentiment and discrimination was in the run-up to WWI. Of course racial self-identification is considered especially divisive today, but it used to not always be viewed as such.


> as for Islam my main beef is it doesn't distinguish between the religion and the secular state

A lot of muslims don't consider or care about the governance model

I think your 'trick' is still masking a lack of very basic understanding about the vast population of people that aren't doing anything radical


And I think it's hard to blame me for this because where I live there are very few Muslims. Muslims, homosexuals etc are always something you read about, not people you can distinguish on a street. They're afraid to identify openly, so you can't go and talk with them.


Hm... so I gather that you consider yourself the tolerant person in your society. Assuming that you are willing to imagine living in a more collaborative society all you need to understand is that people are just people. They have the same wants and desires. Connection, purpose, security, a general understanding that self-preservation requires respecting other people's goal of self-preservation.

It is that simple.


I would argue that failure to presume good faith does more to harm civil society than a lack of empathy. Perhaps presumption of good faith is a form of empathy - but I don't need to empathize with someones point of view to presume they have their own very good reasons, and are trying to advance the argument fairly.


Seems like a call for what used to be called enlightened self interest-- the knowledge that "there but for the grace of God go I, or any man" can also be read as a call for a less punishing, more compassionate way of life.


It seems like the type of empathy taught in the 1970s had a very specific purpose: prevent the world they knew from going up in flames through nuclear war.

And the type of tribal empathy people show together has the same purpose: prevent their world (in the form of values, customs, traditions, and other things they hold sacred) from going up in flames through inaction and the erosion of others not holding those believes.

It makes me wonder how much empathy is coupled with fear. I've read that the post-WW2 unionized capitalism, the Marshall plan, all of the egalitarian civil society built up in the 50s and beyond was supported by the capitalist elite because just about everything was viewed as superior to the devastation of WW2. People were willing to sacrifice some of their personal wealth because the alternative was losing all of it, and oftentimes their lives as well.

Memories of war have faded from most of the developed world. Perhaps it'll take a refresher before people remember why all of those institutions that preserve social stability were necessary in the first place.


Maybe Civil Society's empathy was exploited a bit too much, a bit too brazenly. If that's the reason, insisting the show must go on won't get you much empathy.


I'm not sure about the statement that people have less empathy these days. I'm also skeptical when people say this or that group has low empathy.

Rather I think all humans have a store of active empathy which they can spend or allocate in different ways. most common is empathy to family and close friends and then to the neighborhood. Active empathy is where empathising does something.

That some groups of people seem to show lack of empathy could be a sign that the observer should empathize more with that group to locate where and how their active empathy is.

Empathy is neutral too. The worst "monsters" of nazi regimes were often fuelled by empathy.


If I show you a kindness, will you reciprocate, do nothing or try to extract more?


If you give a person kindness and they are not able to reciprocate, is it selfish of you to expect such a thing?

What if a person needs kindness more than once? A broken arm or leg, for example? Is a single kindness enough?


> If I show you a kindness, will you reciprocate, do nothing or try to extract more?

Showing kindness is not enough. Kindness has to be taught, and baked into our social norms for it to work. If it is, then yes, people will reciprocate.


Almost 10,000 years of civilization and we’re still trying to figure ourselves out.

Why is it so hard to codify “Don’t be a dick”?

Because then what do you do about someone who is being a dick?

But what if they just were being a dick to someone who was being a dick?!

Who decides what counts as being a dick? What if they are dicks?


One other possible dotcom connection, to the alleged decline in empathy...

Before the initial IPO gold rush, there seemed to be relatively more thoughtfulness and altruisim among CS people, about futures of this technology.

Then the norm became CS students (and sometimes professors) talking like MBA students (who, previously, were very different, and complementary). Talk of futures became simplistic, self-focused, and self-promoting, and often seemed disingenuous.

If we look at the way social media works today, one interpretation is that some dotcom founders have remade the world in their image.


The article very much seems to reverse cause and effect. It cites numerous examples of selective empathy or lack of empathy coinciding with the erosion of civil society, but never clearly explains how that empathy element caused the issue. Instead, it seems much more likely that our hyper partisan devolution into more segments and tribal in groups and outgroups is itself that erosion in civil society and lack of empathy or such that is only reserved for your in group is a symptom, an effect rather than the cause.


Random acts of kindness was a popular phrase when I was a teen. It always struck me as a motto for a psychopath, see someone in need, roll a die, and then act. I know that wasn’t the intent. But it should have been, strive for more kindness. But it is ieasier for folks to act once and feel better than to change their median behavior. It seems like one time changes don’t move the average, that behavior is conserved and we do worse things at other times but our ego masks any sort of self reflection.


Or just not caring is a step up from hating. Having no opinions is better than having hate. What seems to have happened in America is that the blue collar working class has become disenfranchised both economically and before Trump politically because of business decisions made by the executive class and they want someone to blame.

Nobody forced America to move all of its blue collar jobs to China and the 3rd world, that was a political decision. Though you can make up reasons of why it's economically impossible now to compete with 3rd world manufacturing these are post-hoc arguments. Before the fact it was perfectly possible to continue to manufacture goods in the US by moving manufacturing to poorer states and innovating as much as possible to keep the costs down.

The wealthy in America have no empathy for the poor and the poor hate on the immigrants while not correctly assigning the blame for their economic woes.

Going forward with this whole basic income idea, it's likely the executive class will try to turn it into a work for food and housing program. Where you can get a basic income but you have to work for it at jobs the companies don't really need to employ for but are simply offering to increase employment in return for a basic income check. That will offset any amount that the companies pays for basic income taxes.


I think teaching empathy in schools is problematic, because students will see through the bullshit of being graded by any teacher who is encouraging them to be empathetic and attribute that BS to empathy as a concept.


>young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!

Meaningless without context.


This is actually a key mechanism for what's wrong, socially, with pretty much everything these days. It fits right in with the concept of The Long Tail.

We get to selectively apply our preferences now, for our unique musical tastes to hear any artist, and thus only those we like; an infinite choice of movies, and thus never the fixed schedules of centralized broadcasts; we can binge on an entire series in a weekend, commercial free, viewing dozens of hours, watching itall in one sitting; browse unlimited archives of text, applying search appliances to a corpus of text, to randomly access select passages ona whim, in ways notpossible with a conventional library of physical volumes.

So too, now, we apply this tendency to the company we keep. We ghost people. We provide votes to rank performance, and perform to score points in a virtualized hypertext context (it's not really a community, it's just web pages still, despite all you may know about interaction, javascript, live video streams, chat, texts, telecommunications and telepresence, social media profiles, blogs, photo sharing... even AR and VR, and second life type avatars... it's all actually still pretty primitive with leaky abstractions everywhere, to be quite honest). Dating random people has exploded in ways not possible with classified ad sections in print media, or even dating services that played match maker, decades ago.

So it's this impulsive, push-button tendency toward instant gratification, creeping in atthe edges of every facet society. The combinatorial explosion of random access awareness to everything we can expose ourselves to, limited only by the pace we set for ourselves. Far from sheltered in an informational sense, now armed with a much broader context of understanding, determined by whichever choices are fortuitous enough to present themselves to us in an endless chain of relational links or rungs we climb, as we negotiate a landscape of media consumption to learn and inform ourselves. With this awareness, we build the context to pass further judgement, stored in a buffer of medium-term memory, like driving at night, with the high beams on, following road signs, but only ever being led to fast food pit stops, big box stores and gas stations, and hotels. Never a home to reside in. No family to speak of, just strangers on the street, it seems.

So that buffer of medium-term memory dictates which peers receive love, who gets the ranking votes, why we buy junk food from this gas station, but not the other.

It's not going away.

It can't be simply destroyed and directly eliminated.

The void left behind will force something to regrow in its place.

This way of life is here to stay. It's going to harden and calcify in this disposition, unless we find a new way; a replacement to unseat it. To fix the broken parts. A way forward.


Ammon Bundy is the example they use? Ammon Bundy supports migrants because he's a rancher and wants cheap labor on his ranch. He wants taxpayers to bear the cost so he can privately profit. That's why people are suspicious about "empathy," it's usually a way of manipulating your emotions so that other people can profit.


Wow, skeptical comments like this strongly reinforce the article's point. To question whether empathy is helpful and suspect the motives of those who are promoting it? Ammon Bundy is a fellow human being with struggles of his own - isn't that enough? It doesn't mean you have to agree with his choices (you can even call them morally wrong).

Empathy is merely a concern for fellow human beings, not emotional manipulation, despite the fact that some people attempt to manipulate others.


Empathy is a concern for some fellow human beings, not all. I think you'll find that most people draw the lines of empathy around the identity group to which they belong and exclude from empathy those their group has identified as the "other."

Empathy is an evolutionary tool for promoting group cohesiveness. It's not likely to extend to all human beings, unless we make contact with a hostile alien civilization.


> Empathy is a concern for some fellow human beings, not all.

> Empathy is an evolutionary tool for promoting group cohesiveness.

Empathy is an emotional attitude we can choose to extend to others. The fact that some people don't feel empathy towards everyone else doesn't mean that's morally right.

Evolution has nothing to do with our moral choices, and it's no excuse either. Extending kindness and dignity to others is far more effective at creating social good than hoping (or waiting until) aliens show up.

If you insist on a pure-naturalistic philosophy (which I do not, but hear me out), consider human society as an emergent property with attributes of its own that are irreducible to natural (or evolutionary, or whatever) causes. As long as we can choose the right as individuals, we carry a moral obligation to do so.


Empathy is an emotional attitude we can choose to extend to others. The fact that some people don't feel empathy towards everyone else doesn't mean that's morally right.

You're entering dangerous territory here. It's not a well-accepted fact that empathy is something you can choose to extend to everyone. On the contrary, there's ample evidence to suggest that we cannot extend it to everyone [1]. To then ascribe moral character to a function which is biologically limited is to run afoul of the ethical principle that ought implies can [2].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compassion_fatigue

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ought_implies_can


Compassion fatigue notwithstanding, it absolutely is possible to believe that all human beings are worthy of dignity, respect, and empathy.

To have decided ahead of time that everyone is worthy of empathy is most of the battle. Yes, we all have limited emotional resources. Millions of murdered people doesn’t move us like it ought to. But love and empathy are like muscles — practicing them improves our capacity to do so.

It also helps to be emotionally healthy and in healthy, loving relationships. (And if I may say so, knowing and being loved/forgiven by God provides a wellspring of emotional life that nothing else can; I’m a Christian.)


After abusing the great majority of people in the US for the last 50 years both economically and socially, the elite are now surprised by the fact that some of the people have noticed.


If you're implying that abuse by elites is some new phenomenon within the last 50 years I completely disagree. In fact social inequality has probably been more favorable and egalitarian during the last 50 years than basically any other time in human history, and US history. There's always room for improvement, but it's worth remembering how far we've actually come.


I think a lot of the argument over whether "things are getting better" as Pinker et al. claim and "things are getting worse" as Piketty et al. claim is the time scale involved. (Nearly) everybody agrees that we are living in a better world than existed before WWII. The question is are we continuing to get more egalitarian or have things begun to regress.




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