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April 27, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage
Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.
The most striking thing happened as I began reading Lori Gruen’s book, Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals. I was sitting on the porch when a baby white-throated sparrow flew inside. Attempting to escape, the sparrow repeatedly dashed itself against the screens, head down in exhaustion. I tried to lead it to the open door. No luck. But then a male cardinal appeared outside. It hovered, went first to one side of the screen, then the other; held tight one moment, moved softly the next. Flying against the screen, it guided the captive bird, gradually, from side to side, up and down—all the while outside the porch—and led it to the open air. For twenty minutes I watched a bird save another not of its brood, and I thought: now that is empathy.
Yet empathy is a word I have always distrusted. Deep and enigmatic, at best it means being present to or with another being; at worst it calls forth a moral surround as exclusive as it is well intentioned. Along with sympathy, and often confused with it, empathy summons an intensely humanized world, where our emotional life—how much we feel for or with—matters more than the conditions that cause suffering and sustain predation. Examples are all around us. To consider but one, we all know the sad excesses of sentiment that followed the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Money flowed to the coffers of international aid organizations and NGOs, but it never reached the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who continued to live as displaced persons in camps. Inhumanity can easily be moderated, legitimized, and even reproduced by the humanitarian concern that is analogous to it.
As an Americanist, I learned from Edgar Allan Poe how the language of sentiment animates subordination. A slave, a piece of property, a black cat—once loved in the proper domestic setting, they arouse a surfeit of devotion, bonds of dependence that slavery apologists claimed could never be felt by equals. Winthrop Jordan recognized this long ago in his brilliant analysis of abolition, White Over Black (1968). “A romantic sentimentalism was a symptom of, and perhaps a subtle yet readily intelligible social signal for, a retreat from rational engagement with the ethical problems posed by Negro slavery.” Narratives of humane care are always conducted by the free in the name of the bound, their emotive impulse turning away from political action and toward what Yasmin Nair has called the neoliberal “performance of pathos.”
But recent attacks on empathy have been as problematic as the postures of self-serving affirmation they criticize. David Brooks, in his New York Times column, condemns empathy as an easy “shortcut. . . . a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them.” For Brooks, the cult of fellow feeling substitutes for a useful and necessary “obligation” or “duty” to live according to “the code.”
What is that code? In The New Yorker, cognitive psychologist Paul Bloom argues against the “increasing focus on the emotions” and the “politics of empathy” that lead to the worst excesses of humanitarianism. Quoting Steven Pinker in the much-celebrated The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), he overrides the claims of empathy with “harder-boiled faculties like prudence, reason, fairness, self-control, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights.” Bloom relegates empathy to nothing more than a “spark of fellow-feeling.” Returning to the familiar dichotomy between moral rationalism and sentimentalism, the feminized culture of sensibility and the masculine call to right reason and duty, he concludes, “Empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.” Bloom extends the argument in a 2014 forum in this magazine, “Against Empathy”: “If you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.”
But what if humanity, with its assurance of moral progress and enlightened rationalism, is the problem? As John Gray recognizes in an incisive review of Pinker’s book, it is the “civilizing process” that needs to be questioned, not the manufactured primitivism of “backward” peoples. Moreover, as Gray writes in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002), secular progress and the chimera of morality mask the rock-bottom truth about “the human animal”: “a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive.”
So much for Bloom’s demand that reason replace empathy. What if we decide, just for a moment, to dislodge humanity from our approach to empathy? Can we insist on empathy but avoid alignment with the humanism that traditionally grounds it? Can we turn feeling into action? In Entangled Empathy, Gruen argues that we can.
Finding herself in this world of greed and brutality—nowhere so cultivated as in the precincts of presumed enlightenment—Gruen thinks through another medium of engagement. A philosophy professor at Weslyan University, where she directs the Ethics in Society Project, she knows the nonhuman animal, having worked for years with chimpanzees in and out of captivity. So she founds an ethics that takes seriously both the perils and the positive effects of empathy, not only in the private world of feeling but also in the public world of action. This ethics requires a radical departure—that we define empathy by a vehement attachment to and inhabitation of what we are not: what is not human.
Adapted from Boston Review.
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MCAT CARS Instructor.