When a man is being told to act rationally, he is either being told to apply logic intelligently to a situation or to put aside his emotion in order to make an accurate decision. To act rationally is mostly ascribed with acting intelligently and optimizing the options available to you in order to make an intelligent and correct decision.
However, when it comes to our interactions with human beings, there are several schools of thought and some believe that to truly build strong bonds and better relationships, we must let ourselves be vulnerable and let our “hearts” guide and not our “heads”. This seems like very good advice or philosophy as the concept of love and its extensions seem to be described as a thing of the heart, a thing that should be felt and expressed as emotion, and to enjoy it to the fullest, the “heart” should lead. This belief has led to the increase in advocacy for more empathy and that we would have a better world if we had more people who could empathize with others.
Empathy is generally defined as the ability to understand another person’s thoughts and feelings in a situation from their point of view, rather than your own. It involves imagining yourself in the same position as the other person in order to truly appreciate or understand how they are feeling.
Empathy is often described as a moral concept that is a step higher than sympathy. It is believed that although advocating for sympathy — the act of feeling sorry or pity for someone because of their present condition- is good, empathy is even better as it involves imagining yourself as the person experiencing that pain or emotional feeling.
However, as well-intended as the clamor for more empathy might be, are we better of as individuals when we allow empathy to guide our decisions, do we have a better world at large when we have more people who can empathize with one another? In this article, I will show why as much as empathy might seem like a good thing, we would have a better world when we can think logically in supposed emotional situations and make intelligent decisions instead of emotionally driven ones, I will show the flaws in empathy and why it may be a false image all along and why you don’t lose your humanity simply because you make rational decisions in supposed emotional situations, I would be advocating for a different decision-making mechanism, I will be showing why we would have a better world when we allow rational compassion to form the core of our decision making.
Empathy: The flaws we often ignore
The concept of putting yourself in others' shoes, would always sound inspirational. The aura of selflessness attached to it would also make it seem like a perfectly moral thing to do. However, empathy in itself is a concept that is flawed. It should be noted that nothing in itself can exist as a perfect life remedy or solution to a problem, however, when the core reasons for its existence is flawed, then it is no longer a case of weighing pros and cons but an outright case of it, not just the right fit for whatever it is supposed to do, and that is the case with empathy — as a moral compass, its intended purpose are barely fulfilled and it is better off not utilized.
The reason behind empathy is that for you to be able to truly understand someone’s emotional feelings or pain, we should imagine ourselves in their positions. However, asides from the fact that it connects us to the pain or emotional feelings of that person, empathy allows us to neglect the emotional equivalence of the cause of that pain or emotional feeling. For example, let’s say a man is facing the death penalty for committing genocide and you are about to witness his execution, but in that time, you see his soon-to-be orphaned children crying for mercy as their dad is all they’ve got. Empathy in this case would make you most likely be compassionate and ask if their father can at least be kept alive or even given a shorter jail sentence, once again, the problem is not whether asking for such mercy is the good or bad decision, the problem is that empathy in that instance only makes you relate with present emotional outcomes and less with the causes of the present emotional state.
In the random example, I just used, one can empathize with the children but would not be able to really understand the pain that hundreds of other children, mothers, or fathers are going through because of the actions of the children’s father who killed their loved ones. The question is would you really be moved to beg for mercy if all aggrieved parties were also crying in front of you and narrating how much they’ve lost because of the actions of the soon to be executed person. That gap in judgment is the first major flaw in the advocacy for a world built on empathy. The relationship one has with the person you’re empathizing with isolates one from the emotional dynamics of the whole picture. This means that empathy creates a situation whereby one is more attached to the closest information about a particular situation, even if the choice of attachment is wrong.
This form of bias can also be extended to how empathy affects our response to fatalities or sad events. We tend to empathize with people when we have personal information about their ordeal even if that fatality might not be as grave or catastrophic compared to other similar events.
A typical example can be how we respond to the kidnap of a child in our local community in comparison to incessant kidnapping and killings in highly terrorized parts of the world. The local kidnapping situation can receive a lot of donations, supports, and comfort from us even after the child might have been returned to his/her parents while we might barely raise a finger of support for other children in other parts of the world ravaged with an insurgency.
Obviously, this is not to say that we shouldn’t help those around us who are in need or those with who we can identify more with their problems, but the major problem is that, the more we can identify with the pain of certain people, the less we have a broad understanding of the bigger picture. We often fail to realize that we might be biased and not really be showing enough care and support to humanity at large because thousands or even millions of other people might be suffering and we might be able to help. The increasing clamor for our world is built on empathy has reduced our ability to really maximize our potential to help others because our ability to process that help is restricted to how far we can connect with their predicaments or pain
Another major flaw in empathy as a moral compass is a corollary of the previous paragraph; empathy is biased as it allows one to relate with the pain of one (or group) as opposed to weighing all the logical cases for all sides. The emotional appeal or gap in information at that moment, allows one to tilt to supporting one person because you empathize with their present pain or have more information about their emotional conditions as compared to other people or groups in question. The bias in empathy already defeats its stance as a moral compass because the whole idea of what should be moral means it should be fair. Empathy isn’t fair, it is being kind to someone because you can relate with their pain even when in relation to the feelings of others, they might actually be wrong or be blamed for putting themselves in that situation. This sort of favoritism is usually common when we have more in common with one party than the other or when the party in question already has a history of pain prior to the recent circumstance.
For example, a black man will most likely be able to relate to the pain of another black man as opposed to those of a white man. It is common for marginalized groups or minorities to tend to support themselves because they understand the pain of one another more than the other.
Although the pains of marginalized or oppressed groups are valid, it isn’t still right when we fail to make accurate judgments about a situation because we are empathizing with their past or inherent pains as oppressed groups. The consequence of this can mostly be seen in the case of female rape accusations; society by default, tends to support the female being raped, not because the accused is proven guilty but because we tend to quickly empathize with the pain most women have gone through being an oppressed gender and also because of the pain and trauma naturally associated with the thought of being raped. Although in the eyes of the law, rape cases have been dismissed due to insufficient evidence and the likes, the social stigma tends to follow the accused and many still hold to their conviction that the accused committed the crime irrespective of the evidence that may claim they didn’t.
The reason for this is, majority of society is already wired to judge and relate to a situation by empathy and in that instance, we are playing favorites and failing to assess the situation holistically by looking at the facts and pieces of evidence before our eyes and not the pain supposedly being experienced by one party.
Also, empathy mostly clouds our judgment with respect to making better decisions or taking a more sustainable line of action. For example, one can be tempted to give handouts to a young man who is basically lazing around instead of trying to work or get a job. The young man’s present state can be painful in terms of not having money to get the things he needs, but the reality is that he is actually a lazy man who doesn’t want to work and prefers to keep living off handouts from others. Despite the fact that you have this information about him (being a lazy bum), empathy can make you feel his present pain and decide that you can help him with cash. Although you might think that you have relieved his pain, the problem is people like that young man tend to waste money given to them and revert to constituting nuisance in society.
Hence, the best line of action could have been to get him engaged with a job or advise him to get himself a job, he would then have to work to provide for himself. We also see such scenarios with food aids being given to some underdeveloped countries or poorer states. Although, these aids are seemingly good in the short term, most times they tend to have undesirable long term effects like the nature of the relationship between the developed nation and underdeveloped country being solely built around such ‘aid giving — aid receiving’ instead of one where more sustaining infrastructural ties or economic partnership or alliance could have been formed. Also, local farmers might also see their profit decline due to this food aid because there is less demand for their produce or less incentive to invest in the local agricultural sector, this can in turn affect the economy of this country being supposedly helped.
Empathy can affect our decisions to weigh the pros and cons of our options with respect to short and long term utilities respectively, and most times because we have invested already with the present pains of the parties concerned, we tend to overlook the more effective or sustainable line of actions
Empathy can also be dangerous as it tends to create a world where people want to avenge the pain caused by others on those they’re empathizing with. Empathy creates a very intense situation by making people create a strong attachment with the pain and emotional feelings of others, which means that one can almost feel the pain they feel as if it were ours. Once again, as poetic as it may sound, it once again makes one be too close to the grief of the other party and may want to avenge or hate the party behind that pain. There have been real-life cases of people who have been on a life mission to avenge or ‘get justice’ for an aggrieved party. Some have become extremists or resort to breaking the law in a bid to get justice. Once again, it is not that the aggrieved party does not deserve justice, but that can the empathizer make a better decision on how to get that justice if he/she was less attached to the pain faced by the aggrieved and more attached to the fact that someone has been wrongfully treated and he logically deserves justice? Then he can proceed to figure out how that justice can be gotten lawfully.
Hence, the empathizer can still achieve all the good he wants for the aggrieved without having to be emotionally attached to the pain the aggrieved is facing. He/she needs to learn a new form of judging morality and deciding what should be done about the present emotional state of others, he/she needs to learn rational compassion.
Rational Compassion: A guide for making better decisions
Since putting ourselves in the shoes of others is a flawed way to make moral decisions or show compassion, the alternative is to intelligently make moral decisions on compassion or kindness.
Rational compassion involves a deep, intense, and intelligent analysis of the facts, cost, and benefits of a decision that one would naturally be inclined to use empathy. It involves making decisions about compassion but allowing logic and intelligent analysis to weigh our options and optimize our final decisions.
The criticism against rational compassion is that it objectifies people and treats humans as objects and not as people with feelings. On a surface evaluation, it seems like a valid argument against rational compassion but when you look deeper it’s just a one-sided argument for empathy or the need to always promote the popular belief that the heart should be allowed to lead the head. The basis behind the argument is that if we advocate for a world built on rational compassion and not empathy we would have a lot of ‘robots’ or most importantly, people would want to hurt one another as they would have detached themselves from understanding how their fellow human would feel if they acted in a certain way.
The flaw in this take is that our understanding of how people feel or would feel has never been a basis for doing what is right or bad. In fact, I decide to hurt people because I know how they would feel, the reason I want to hurt someone is because I know exactly how they would feel when I hurt them in a particular way. So, the effect of that knowledge goes both ways and hence cannot be lob sided to only fit the agenda that possible dehumanization or objectification of people, is going to create a brutal world where people are treated harshly or like objects.
Besides, the popular frown against the objectification of people is caused by an exaggerated idea of the concept, as we tend to wrongly equate the potential treatments of a human as an object as harsh or inhumane treatment. This is wrong as there are objects we treat well, keep safe and care for with everything in us.
Obviously, it would be a little too much to outrightly compare objects to human beings as objects do not have feelings and cannot react to how we choose to treat them, but this difference in how we treat different objects around us, can be applied to the core aspect of what rational compassion stands for; the varying way we treat objects depends largely on the purpose or value attributed to that object. It is very important to note that there is still emotion at play here but an internal and not externally influenced one like empathy. The ‘value’ or ‘purpose’ that makes you treat that object well is self-defined by the person and is independent of the emotional state of that object, hence, the person makes a decision based on all important information about that object as he sees it through the lens of all the facts available and not based on the present emotional state of the object. Even the external influences as to how an object should be treated are mostly based on general consensus on how valuable that object is, hence, meaning that without the object influencing or perception about it, we get to still make accurate decisions about the value or emotional disposition that we should have about the object in question
Rational compassion creates a world where people are treated right because they should be treated right. It creates popular reasoning in which people weigh all the options available to them and decides if a person should be shown compassion based on all evaluated pros and cons. This removes bias caused by the information gap enhanced by the present emotional state of the other party. It doesn’t make us “gods” who now begin to go around deciding who deserves compassion and who doesn’t, but what it does is that it enables us to detach ourselves from the bias and flaw that exists when we choose to use empathy as a moral compass.
Most importantly, rational compassion enables people to apply already laid down moral and lawful principles about a certain situation. This creates a system that is just and fair as people consider all angles of the situation, then go ahead to apply already laid out morally accepted principles void of the distraction of how the other party may be responding to the situation.
In conclusion, as much as empathy is a concept designed and formulated with well-intended plans of creating a world of more compassionate and morally sound people, the reality is that empathy is flawed at its core and its supposed intentions and utilities can be achieved in a world where we already have laid out principles and the social contract that guides us.
Therefore, as humans we are better off when we trust the existing moral guidelines and principles, such that it enables us to weigh situations with these guidelines as compasses in order to make fair, just and accurate decisions are borne out of a complete understanding and view of the entire picture. As humans we are better off when we can apply logic and ration to emotional situations; we are better off with rational compassion.