Tag: Philosophy

Ayn Rand on Why Philosophy Matters

Nearly four decades after her death, many of Ayn Rand’s works remain controversial and divide people into two camps: love them or hate them. Her lesser known book on philosophy provides broad, timeless insights. Here are her thoughts on the value of philosophy.

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A note on keeping an open mind:

Ayn Rand is a controversial figure. Responses to her ideas seem to land on extremes. The problem with this kind of discourse is that it prevents dialogue. We encourage taking advantage of grey thinking and trying to avoid viewing people and ideas as good/bad binaries. We can learn from people we both like and dislike. We can agree with one idea from someone without having to buy into all their ideas.

There is no doubt that Rand’s essays are polemic. Her writing, like all recorded knowledge, needs to be understood in context. The 1970s saw the height of the Cold War, when capitalism versus communism was set as a battle that would decide the fate of humanity. One need not agree with her political and economic prescriptions to get something interesting from her writing. Accepting this complexity is aligning with the complicated nature of the world. With this in mind, let’s continue!

In Philosophy: Who Needs It, Rand raises questions that dive into the heart of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that seeks to explain the nature of reality. What can be known? What are our core responsibilities as human beings? The title of the book comes from a talk she gave at the United States Military Academy in 1974. It is a collection of essays written mostly in the 1970s, and explores ideas about the requirements of living a full life and participating well in the world.

Here are two key takeaways from this book:

We All Need Philosophy

To answer the original question of who needs philosophy, Rand argues that everyone does.

She suggests we need philosophy to help develop our values, and to defend ourselves against manipulation and control. Rand posits that everyone has a personal philosophy. In her view:

[y]our only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.

She goes on to advocate for the process of learning to identify first principles in our thinking processes. This involves picking apart assumptions about the foundations of our knowledge by asking questions like, “Why?” or, “How do I know this to be true? What are the standards a statement must meet in order to be considered true?” This kind of questioning is an important component of deliberate thinking. When we avoid challenging ourselves and others, we remain vulnerable to the influence of ideas that would ultimately do us harm.

Reflection is the key to thinking well

Rand claims that reflection is a responsibility we all have, and that it is a critical step in gaining useful knowledge.

The men who scorn or dread introspection take their inner states for granted, as an irreducible and irresistible primary, and let their emotions determine their actions. This means that they choose to act without knowing the context (reality), the causes (motives), and the consequences (goals) of their actions.

Letting our emotions dictate our actions results in rationalizing experience to fit what we feel, instead of dealing with the world as it actually is.

Rand makes an interesting distinction when she says, “What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an ‘open mind,’ but an active mind—a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically.” Being willing to listen isn’t enough. We must be willing to engage with what we hear, not accepting at face value the often misinformed opinions of others.

She discusses how lazy thought processes hinder progress. Discussing the person who avoids reflection, she writes, ‘When such a man considers a goal or desire he wants to achieve, the first question in his mind is: “Can I do it?”—not “What is required to do it?”’ It’s a handy approach to keep at the forefront. When confronted with obstacles, we can first consider the conditions necessary to tackling them, not if we have the capacity to do so.

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There are many philosophers and essayists that we continue to learn from, even as we gingerly pick our way around their flaws. One disappointment in the book is that Rand’s philosophy often doesn’t live up to the requirements she herself argues for. But she isn’t the first thinker whose questions are far more interesting than her answers.

The Best of Goethe’s Aphorisms

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749–1832) Maxims and Reflections is a terrific source of philosophical wisdom. The German writer, statesman, lawyer, playwright, and polymath was brilliant at distilling complex questions and concepts into simple, reflective statements. His wisdom was derived from a life spent learning, thinking, and transmitting knowledge across a wide variety of fields. He crafted volumes of poetry, dramas, and thought pieces on botany, human anatomy, and even the science of color. From his 590 aphorisms, here are our favorites which we hope you enjoy pondering:

#2. How can a man come to know himself? Never by thinking, but by doing. Try to do your duty and you will know at once what you are worth.

#7. Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are. If I know what your business is, I know what can be made of you.

#19. It is only men of practical ability, knowing their powers and using them with moderation and prudence, who will be successful in worldly affairs.

#20. It is a great error to take oneself for more than one is, or for less than one is worth.

#33. Everything that frees our spirit without giving us control of ourselves is ruinous.

#34. A man is really alive only when he delights in the good-will of others.

#37. When a man is old he must do more than when he was young.

#60. Wisdom lies only in truth.

#65. Generosity wins favor for every one, especially when it is accompanied by modesty.

#91. Certain minds must be allowed their peculiarities.

#102. So obstinately contradictory is man that you cannot compel him to his advantage, yet he yields before everything that forces him to his hurt.

#124. One need only grow old to become gentler in one’s judgments. I see no fault committed which I could not have committed myself.

#130. Hatred is active displeasure, envy passive. We need not wonder that envy turns so soon to hatred.

#131. There is something magical in rhythm; it even makes us believe that we possess the sublime.

#134. The most foolish of all errors is for clever young men to believe that they forfeit their originality in recognizing a truth which has already been recognized by others.

#143. No one should desire to live in irregular circumstances; but if by chance a man falls into them, they test his character and show how much determination he is capable of.

#152. Ingratitude is always a kind of weakness. I have never known men of ability to be ungrateful.

#162. There are people who make no mistakes because they never wish to do anything worth doing.

#184. We may learn to know the world as we please: it will always retain a bright and a dark side.

#211. Enthusiasm is of the greatest value, so long as we are not carried away by it.

#223. We cannot escape a contradiction in ourselves; we must try and resolve it. If the contradiction comes from others, it does not affect us: it is their affair.

#231. Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.

#239. To live in a great idea means to treat the impossible as though it were possible. It is just the same with a strong character; and when an idea and a character meet, things arise which fill the world with wonder for thousands of years.

#264. A man’s manners are the mirror in which he shows his portrait.

#270. Against the great superiority of another there is no remedy but love.

#276. Fools and wise folk are alike harmless. It is the half-wise and the half-foolish, who are the most dangerous.

#278. Difficulties increase the nearer we come to our aim.

#320. A man is not deceived by others, he deceives himself.

#324. It is not enough to know, we must also apply; it is not enough to will, we must also do.

#332. Nothing is more highly to be prized than the value of each day.

#345. A man is well equipped for all the real necessities of life if he trusts his senses, and so cultivates them that they remain worthy of being trusted.

#346. The senses do not deceive; it is the judgment that deceives.

#383. Every man hears only what he understands.

#485. There is no surer way of evading the world than by Art; and no surer way of uniting with it than by Art.

#486. Even in the moments of highest happiness and deepest misery we need the Artist.

#488. The dignity of Art appears perhaps most conspicuously in music; for in music there is no material to be deducted. It is wholly form and intrinsic value, and it raises and ennobles all that it expresses.

#529. We more readily confess to errors, mistakes and shortcomings in our conduct than in our thought.

#554. A man must cling to the belief that the incomprehensible is comprehensible; otherwise he would not try to fathom it.

#579. There are two things of which a man cannot be careful enough: of obstinacy if he confines himself to his own line of thought; of incompetency, if he goes beyond it.

#584. Every one knows how to value what he has attained in life; most of all the man who thinks and reflects in his old age. He has a comfortable feeling that it is something of which no one can rob him.

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If you enjoyed reading these you may also be interested in digesting similar lists of aphorisms we wrote about:

From Eastern Philosophy: Aphorisms for Thirsty Fish: The Lost Writings of Wu Hsin 

From the mind of Nassim Taleb: The Bed of Procrustes — 20 Aphorisms from Nassim Taleb

And an interesting discussion criticizing aphorisms: Susan Sontag: Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom

The Power of Questions

The quality of the answers we get are directly correlated with the quality of the questions we ask. Here’s how to improve your questions.

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When we run our once-a-year Re:Think Europe event, 10 participants work with us for a month before the event to hone their questions. This is the most intense event we run for a reason. Each person brings a problem or challenge to the table for others to help with. Participants research each other’s problems before the event. Before they even show up, refining and iterating the questions often helps the participants make huge leaps forward.

As a society, we tend to focus a lot on answers. Answers are solutions to problems. We tend to give less prestige to questions. Everyone has them. They’re easy. It’s the answers that take the work.

This overlooks the power of questions. Asking questions gives you a better understanding of everything: the situation you are in, the challenges you are facing. Life.

Let me share a story that took place in my second-year history class in university. We started discussing the assigned reading. I didn’t really understand it, but I figured I’d get it just sitting there. Then this guy raised his hand and said, “Hey Professor, could you explain [technical term]? It wasn’t clear to me from the article.”

Boom. I had this startling insight. Up until then, I had always been afraid to ask questions like that for fear of looking stupid [read about pluralistic ignorance here]. But this guy didn’t appear stupid. At that moment, he seemed like the smartest guy in the class.

Asking questions means you want to learn. You want to understand and know. So where do you start? Anywhere you want. But don’t feel pressure to begin with the big questions, the ones we all confront at one time or another, like the meaning of life, or what exists beyond our physical experience of earth. There is a significant amount to be learned from the seemingly mundane ones, questions that seem so basic, once we reach about age 12 we no longer bother asking them—because we either think we know the answer or are afraid of admitting we don’t.

Consider the following three questions:

  1. What is a horse?
  2. What is green?
  3. What is a point in time?

At first glance, these don’t seem difficult. They’re grade school stuff. But these are actually really hard questions that can show us how much is to be gained from asking them.

First, what is a horse? Most people will list the physical characteristics that horses have in common, saying, “A horse has four legs, and a mane, and you can ride it.” This is definitely true of some horses, but we would reasonably consider a three-legged horse still a horse. And a horse doesn’t cease to be a horse if it can’t be ridden. It doesn’t become some other animal.

There is, I think, some component of DNA that is the same for all horses, a bit of code that tells the cells to form the horse. So why don’t we reference a specific gene sequence when we are explaining what a horse is? Because it wouldn’t in any way communicate what we mean by the word horse. Horses have properties that relate to our experience of them. The problem is, they all don’t have the same properties.

So what we do is fix a vague concept in our minds of horseness. It can’t be an image, because then it would be a specific horse, and it can’t be explicitly defined because we wouldn’t encompass the whole category. So we keep it at a fuzzy level that, despite its lack of precision, is extremely useful when we have to communicate in any way about horses. The abstract concept must stay abstract to retain its utility.

So, are you being pedantic when you ask, “What is a horse?” Not at all. You’re actually doing something very important. You are assessing the understanding of the person you are talking to in reference to yours. And you discover that it’s never going to be a perfect match.

As for the second question, what is green? This one is definitely more painful. The easy answer is, a color. But that’s not a good answer, for what is a color? A quality that objects possess? Ooh cool. Where can I get some of this quality? Ah. Nowhere. Green is a quality that does not exist outside of the objects that possess it.

There is no place you can see green without seeing something being green. How unfair is this? I know green. I see it all the time. But it is not a thing I can hold. A change in the way my eyes process light and there could cease to be green [related: How do you know that you know what you know?]. But greenness would always be out there, a property of the interaction of light and molecules that can be so vivid but doesn’t actually exist on its own.

Does this make asking, “What is green?” a waste of time? No. Wanting to get a handle on the fundamentals is never a waste of time. You can learn what you can influence and what you cannot. In this case you learn that you can change the color of an object, but you have no powers when it comes to color itself.

Finally, what is a point in time? This one really hurts. First, we should ask what is a point? Conveniently, Euclid provided some definitions over 2000 years ago.

  1. A point is that which has no part.
  2. A line is length without breadth.
  3. A surface is that which has length and breadth only.

From this, we can conclude that a point has neither length nor breadth. That’s okay. It’s just this thing, and if you connect two of them with length you get a line. Euclid also said, “The extremities of lines are points.” It all works. Conceptually, it makes sense. I can wrap my head around it enough to do basic geometry. Great.

But if you actually think about it, your brain could explode. A point has neither length nor breadth? Then what does it have? It has to have something, in order to be something, doesn’t it? But anything that occupies space must have length and breadth, however infinitesimal. Since points have neither, they cannot occupy space. But then how can they form the ends of lines? How can they be?

The same thing happens when we try to conceive of a point in time. It’s something we all get. We say things like “going forward” as if there is a specific moment that we can measure all other moments against. But how exactly would you describe a moment in time? To say that implies that there are many moments, all of which could be distinguished from each other. But can they be? What fills the space between them? And if you say nothing, then how can the points be distinguished at all?

Are we unreasonable, then, when we question, ‘What is a point in time?” No. We can’t question everything every day, as it would likely put us in a state of paralysis, but asking questions like this shows that there is much to be gained from the act of trying to answer. We can learn a lot, often more, from the work involved in answering a question than from the answer itself.

There are no dumb questions. Don’t be afraid to ask them. They are the most straight forward path to learning.

The Eternal Pursuit of Unhappiness

Along the same vein as Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing, The Eternal Pursuit of Unhappiness is the business philosophy handbook from the marketing, advertising, and PR firm Ogilvy & Mather.

The book is a roadmap for the desired organizational culture at Ogilvy & Mather and clearly articulates the unique culture they espouse: one focused heavily on creativity.

The book outlines eight simple virtues of an organization where creativity is pervasive:

  1. Courage
  2. Idealism
  3. Curiosity
  4. Playfulness
  5. Candour
  6. Intuition
  7. Free-Spiritedness
  8. Persistence

These eight virtues are common to creative people down through the ages. They are our path to recognizing our own inner greatness. Together, they should represent the distillation of what is best in this company. We must live by them and for them.

1. Courage

If fear is our principal adversary, then, courage is our chief ally. It is the first of the eight creative habits for good reason: it is the habit that guarantees all the others.

In the absence of courage, nothing worthwhile can be accomplished.

2. Idealism

Helen Keller, the deaf and blind activist, was asked by a journalist what she thought would be worse than being born blind. She replied without missing a beat, ‘to have sight and no vision.’

3. Curiosity

‘He who no longer pauses to wonder and stand rapt in awe,’ Einstein pronounced, ‘is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.’

It is only in the open state of curiosity that we can explore, dream and make babies in our heads.

For a start, we have to ask stupid questions like a pesky 6-year-old.

Once again, Einstein has something to say on the matter (as well as proving that he would have made a very short-lived cat): ‘I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted,’ the physicist said. ‘I am only very, very curious.’

4. Playfulness

David (Ogilvy) never entirely grew up.

He would heckle in meetings, throw chocolate cakes at dinner parties and roll down grassy slopes in Brooks Brothers suits.

He told us to develop our eccentricities while we’re young so people would not think we’re going gaga as we got older.

Like all creative people, David knew that necessity may be the mother of invention, but it is horseplay that’s most certainly the father.

5. Candour

We are a company of problem solvers.

Our job requires us to be brutally honest and totally dedicated to the truth.

For unless we know the truth, in all its unlovely details, how are we going to go about the business of problem solving.

The tendency to be nice and avoid telling the truth is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature.

6. Intuition

We waste our beautiful mind by leaning lopsidedly on logic.

We are in the business of creativity and discovery. What clients value most about us is our ability to find one-of-a-kind solutions for their business problems through intuitive leaps.

7. Free-Spiritedness

Ironically, most agencies fail to grasp the fragility of the idea-generation process.

The notion that bureaucratic sausage factories pumping out fodder for meetings will solve the problem is ludicrous, as are the box-ticking, paint-by-numbers follow-up sessions.

The work is, not infrequently, as dull as the meetings that precede it.

Bureaucracy has no place in an ideas company.

8. Persistence

If the client kills your day, do him a better one.

If he kills the better one, do him an even better one.

If he kills that even better one, do him your damn best one.

Dogged determination is often the only trait that separates a moderately creative person from a highly creative one.

If you’re interested in reading the book for yourself, you’ll have a very hard time finding it on the open market (as the Amazon link above attests). To learn more this video does a great job of summarizing the eight virtues. You could also listen to The Knowledge Project Podcast Episode #19 with Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather.

So Two Stoics Walk Into a Bar…

The first thing he ordered was OJ with a splash of vodka. When people come to the FS bar the first thing they did was order a drink so this didn’t seem out of the ordinary. But looking closely … this was no ordinary man.

Why was Seneca ordering a drink at the FS Bar? And who was that next to him? Is that Epictetus? It’s clear this was going to be no ordinary night at the FS bar.

It’s time to get to work.

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(What follows is our imagined dialogue between Epictetus and Seneca, two essential contributors to Stoic thought, at the FS bar, presided over by an intellectually curious bartender, Kit.

Imagine: There is a slight breeze as the door opens. In walk Seneca and Epictetus. They are both dressed decently, but plainly. After taking a moment to adjust to the light, they each take a seat at the FS bar.)

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Kit: Evening Gentlemen. What can I get you?

Epictetus: I’ll have an orange juice with a little vodka. Get my friend here a hemlock tea.

Seneca: Very humorous. I’ll have the same, please.

Kit: No problem. (She begins to mix the drinks)

Seneca turns to Epictetus, obviously continuing a conversation they had started earlier.

Seneca: I’m not sure I agree with you. Relationships don’t automatically interfere with our ability to be content. If you find someone who has the same approach to life as you, then it’s possible to share your life with them.

Epictetus: Ah, that makes me nervous. Other people, their decisions, their actions, are outside of our control. If we can’t walk away from relationships then we’re relying on things that we have no control over. And it’s impossible to be content like that.

Seneca: But surely a life without emotional attachment is not the kind of life that will provide contentment?

Epictetus: Why not?

(Seneca pauses to think about this.)

Seneca: It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life. Every individual can make himself happy. That implies that feeling something positive is the goal.

Epictetus: Yes, but happiness comes when you can generate it yourself. Like you said, everyone is born with the tools to make himself happy. You don’t need anything else in this world to achieve it. Money, stuff, or relationships.

Seneca: I guess the question then, is can you have something without needing it? Can you enjoy something without relying on it?

(pause while they both consider this)

Kit: And how are the screwdrivers Gentlemen?

Seneca: Exactly as they should be. Thank you.

Epictetus: You probably think our conversation isn’t very appropriate for a bar.

Kit: (smiles) Everything is appropriate for a bar. It’s a good place to work out your thoughts.

Seneca: What do you think? About my friend’s point that we should form no real attachments to anyone. Spouses. Children. Because we can never be truly content relying on anything outside of our control.

Kit: It sounds pretty impossible. If you didn’t care about anyone, why would you even bother getting married or having kids? What would be the point?

Seneca: Exactly! I think that relationships can play a crucial role in being content with your life. The goal is not to avoid feeling because it can cause pain, but accept that pain will inevitably come, and learn to deal with it with equanimity. And if you have a close relationship with someone who’s similar, you can find contentment with each other. It’s about enjoying relationships without becoming attached to them.

Epictetus: No, no. Denial is better than moderation. Wanting nothing means no one has power over you. As soon as you want a spouse, you compromise your ability to control your life.

Seneca: As soon as you desire anything, you compromise. But what if it’s not about wanting a spouse. Or children. What if it’s just about doing it if the opportunity presents itself, and then it becomes about loving the ones you have.

Kit: (who has continued to listen to their conversation due to a lack of other patrons) I think it would be really hard to not want your children to grow up and have great lives.

Epictetus: It’s not ‘wanting’ or ‘not wanting’. It’s not feeling anything at all beyond what you can control.

Kit: Is that even possible?

Epictetus: (shrugs) It’s something to work towards. (Sees Kit’s skeptical expression) Look, if you go buy a chocolate bar, it costs you a dollar. If you don’t buy it, you don’t have the chocolate bar, but you still have the dollar. You can’t both get something and not pay for it. It’s the same with relationships. You can’t derive benefit from them without it costing you to some degree. And if you don’t invest yourself in them, you’ll still have that effort available for yourself.

Seneca: I disagree. I think it is possible to love. You just can’t let yourself be controlled by it. It is desires that blind us to the truth. The wanting, not the being. You can and should love your children. But you must also be mindful of the precariousness of life, and not be amazed or devastated by the things that happen to them. A lot of bad shit happens in life, to us and the ones we love. The problem is that we are always surprised by it.

Epictetus: Ah, so when a little wine is stolen, don’t get upset. It’s the price you pay for tranquility.

Seneca: Right.

Kit: So, you just have to accept that your husband will leave you, and your children will die, that way when it happens you will just be like ‘oh, okay’?

Seneca: (shakes his head) Not quite. It’s more knowing that they could. See, it might not ever happen, but then again, it might. And if you start off accepting that fortune, or fate, or however you understand the world, brings both good and bad, then you will be able to still find contentment no matter what life throws at you.

Kit: Hmm. And does it work for you?

Seneca: (laughs) Sometimes.

Epictetus: I think it’s about trying to be one step removed from what’s happening. If you can recognize, for instance, that it’s not people who are irritating, but your judgment about their behavior that is irritating, then you create a space where you can change how you feel without needing anyone else to change.

Seneca: Yes. The more understanding and acceptance you have of the reality of living, the less you are impacted when circumstances knock you down.

Kit: Well, that I can get behind. Another drink?

Making Compassionate Decisions: The Role of Empathy in Decision Making

“The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.”

— Barack Obama

You don’t have to look hard to find quotes expounding the need for more empathy in society. As with Barack Obama’s quote above, we are encouraged to actively build empathy with others — especially those who are different from us. The implicit message in these pleas is that empathy will make us treat each other with more respect and caring and will help reduce violence. But is this true? Does empathy make us appreciate others, help us behave in moral ways, or help us make better decisions?

These are questions Paul Bloom tackles in his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. As the title suggests, Bloom’s book makes a case against empathy as an inherent force for good and takes a closer look at what empathy is (and is not), how empathy works in our brains, how empathy can lead to immoral outcomes despite our best intentions, and how we can improve our ability to have a positive impact by strengthening our intelligence, compassion, self-control, and ability to reason.

To explore these questions, we first need to define what we’re talking about.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is an often-used word that can mean different things. Bloom quotes one team of empathy researchers who joke that “there are probably nearly as many definitions of empathy as people working on this topic.” For his part, Bloom defines empathy as “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.” This type of empathy was explored by philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Bloom writes:

As Adam Smith put it, we have the capacity to think about another person and “place ourselves in his situation and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.”

This is the definition and view of empathy that Bloom devotes most of the book to exploring. This is the “standing in another man’s shoes” type of empathy from Barack Obama’s quote above, which Bloom calls emotional empathy.

“I feel your pain” is more than a metaphor. It’s literal.

With emotional empathy, you actually experience a weaker degree of what somebody else feels. Researchers in recent years have been able to show that empathic responses of pain occur in the same area of the brain where real pain is experienced.

So “I feel your pain” isn’t just a gooey metaphor; it can be made neurologically literal: Other people’s pain really does activate the same brain area as your own pain, and more generally, there is neural evidence for a correspondence between self and other.

To make the shoe metaphor literal, imagine that you see somebody drop something heavy on their foot — you flinch because you know what this feels like and the parts of your brain that experience pain (the anterior insula and the cingulate cortex) react. You don’t feel the same degree of pain, of course — you didn’t drop anything on your foot after all — but it is likely that you have an involuntary physical reaction like a flinch, a facial grimace, or an audible outburst. This is an emotionally empathic response.

But there is another form of empathy that Bloom wants us to be aware of and consider differently. It relates to our ability to understand what is going on in the minds of others. Bloom refers to this form as cognitive empathy:

… if I understand that you are in pain without feeling it myself, this is what psychologists describe as social cognition, social intelligence, mind reading, theory of mind, or mentalizing. It’s also sometimes described as a form of empathy—“cognitive empathy” as opposed to “emotional empathy.”

In this sense, cognitive empathy speaks to our capacity to understand what is going on in the minds of others. In the case of pain, which is where a lot of empathy research is done, we’re not talking about feeling any degree of pain, as we might with emotional empathy, but instead, we simply understand that the other person is feeling pain without feeling it ourselves. Cognitive empathy goes beyond pain — our ability to understand what is going on in somebody else’s mind is an important part of being human and is necessary for us to relate to each other.

Empathy and compassion are synonyms in many dictionaries and used interchangeably by many, but they have different characteristics.

The brain is, of course, very complicated, so it is plausible that these two types of empathy could take place in the same part of the brain. So far, though, the research seems to indicate that they are largely separate:

In a review article, Jamil Zaki and Kevin Ochsner note that hundreds of studies now support a certain perspective on the mind, which they call “a tale of two systems.” One system involves sharing the experience of others, what we’ve called empathy; the other involves inferences about the mental states of others—mentalizing or mind reading. While they can both be active at once, and often are, they occupy different parts of the brain. For instance, the medial prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, is involved in mentalizing, while the anterior cingulate cortex, sitting right behind that, is involved in empathy.

The difference between cognitive and emotional empathy is important for understanding Bloom’s arguments. From Bloom’s perspective, cognitive empathy is “…a useful and necessary tool for anyone who wishes to be a good person—but it is morally neutral.” On the other hand, Bloom believes that emotional empathy is “morally corrosive,” and the bulk of his attack is directed at highlighting the pitfalls of relying on emotional empathy while making the case for cultivating and practicing “rational compassion” instead.

I believe that the capacity for emotional empathy, described as “sympathy” by philosophers such as Adam Smith and David Hume, often simply known as “empathy” and defended by so many scholars, theologians, educators, and politicians, is actually morally corrosive. If you are struggling with a moral decision and find yourself trying to feel someone else’s pain or pleasure, you should stop. This empathic engagement might give you some satisfaction, but it’s not how to improve things and can lead to bad decisions and bad outcomes. Much better to use reason and cost-benefit analysis, drawing on a more distanced compassion and kindness.

Here again, the definition of the terms is important for understanding the argument. Empathy and compassion are synonyms in many dictionaries and used interchangeably by many, but they have different characteristics. Bloom outlines the difference:

… compassion and concern are more diffuse than empathy. It is weird to talk about having empathy for the millions of victims of malaria, say, but perfectly normal to say that you are concerned about them or feel compassion for them. Also, compassion and concern don’t require mirroring of others’ feelings. If someone works to help the victims of torture and does so with energy and good cheer, it doesn’t seem right to say that as they do this, they are empathizing with the individuals they are helping. Better to say that they feel compassion for them.

Bloom references a review paper written by Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki to help make the distinction clear. Singer and Klimecki write:

In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.

To summarize, emotional empathy could be simply described as “feeling what others feel,” cognitive empathy as “understanding what others feel,” and compassion as “caring about how others feel.”

Emotional empathy could be simply described as “feeling what others feel,” cognitive empathy as “understanding what others feel,” and compassion as “caring about how others feel.”

Empathy and Morality

Many people believe that our ability to empathize is the basis for morality because it causes us to consider our actions from another’s perspective. “Treat others as you would like to be treated” is the basic morality lesson repeated thousands of times to children all over the world.

In this way, empathy can lead us to rely on our self-centered nature. If this is true, Bloom suggests that the argument in its simplest form would go like this:

Everyone is naturally interested in him- or herself; we care most about our own pleasure and pain. It requires nothing special to yank one’s hand away from a flame or to reach for a glass of water when thirsty. But empathy makes the experiences of others salient and important—your pain becomes my pain, your thirst becomes my thirst, and so I rescue you from the fire or give you something to drink. Empathy guides us to treat others as we treat ourselves and hence expands our selfish concerns to encompass others.

In this way, the willful exercise of empathy can motivate kindness that would never have otherwise occurred. Empathy can make us care about a slave, or a homeless person, or someone in solitary confinement. It can put us into the mind of a gay teenager bullied by his peers, or a victim of rape. We can empathize with a member of a despised minority or someone suffering from religious persecution in a faraway land. All these experiences are alien to me, but through the exercise of empathy, I can, in some limited way, experience them myself, and this makes me a better person.

When we consider the plight of others by imagining ourselves in their situation, we experience an empathic response that can cause us to evaluate the morality of our actions.

When we consider the plight of others by imagining ourselves in their situation, we experience an empathic response that can cause us to evaluate the morality of our actions.

In an interview, Steven Pinker hypothesizes that it was an increase in empathy, made possible by the technology of the printing press and the resulting increase in literacy, that led to the Humanitarian Revolution during the Enlightenment. The increase in empathy brought about by our ability to read accounts of violent punishments like disembowelment and mutilation caused us to reconsider the morality of treating other human beings in such ways.

So in certain instances, empathy can play a role in motivating us to take moral action. But is an empathic response required to do so?

To use a classic example from philosophy—first thought up by the Chinese philosopher Mencius—imagine that you are walking by a lake and see a young child struggling in shallow water. If you can easily wade into the water and save her, you should do it. It would be wrong to keep walking.

What motivates this good act? It is possible, I suppose, that you might imagine what it feels like to be drowning, or anticipate what it would be like to be the child’s mother or father hearing that she drowned. Such empathic feelings could then motivate you to act. But that is hardly necessary. You don’t need empathy to realize that it’s wrong to let a child drown. Any normal person would just wade in and scoop up the child, without bothering with any of this empathic hoo-ha.

And so there has to be more to morality than empathy. Our decisions about what’s right and what’s wrong, and our motivations to act, have many sources. One’s morality can be rooted in a religious worldview or a philosophical one. It can be motivated by a more diffuse concern for the fates of others—something often described as concern or compassion…

I hope most people reading this would agree that failing to attempt to save a drowning child or supporting or perpetrating violent punishments like disembowelment would be at the very least morally reprehensible, if not outright evil.

But what motivates people to be “evil”? For researchers like Simon Baron-Cohen, evil is defined as “empathy erosion” — truly evil people lack the capacity to empathize, and it is this lack of empathy that causes them to act in evil ways. Bloom looks at the question of what causes people to be evil from a slightly different angle:

Indeed, some argue that the myth of pure evil gets things backward. That is, it’s not that certain cruel actions are committed because the perpetrators are self-consciously and deliberatively evil. Rather it is because they think they are doing good. They are fueled by a strong moral sense.

When the perpetrators of violence or cruelty believe that their actions are morally justified, what motivates them? Bloom suggests that it can be empathy. Empathy often causes us to choose sides, to choose whom to empathize with. We see this tendency play out in politics all the time.

Empathy often causes us to choose sides, to choose whom to empathize with.

Politicians representing one side believe they are saving the world, while representatives on the other side believe that their adversaries are out to destroy civilization as we know it. If I believe that I am protecting a person or group of people whom I choose to empathize with, then I may be motivated to act in a way I believe is morally justified, even though others may believe that I have harmed them.

Steven Pinker weighed in on this issue when he wrote the following in The Better Angels of our Nature:

If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.

Bloom quotes Pinker and goes on to write:

Henry Adams put this in stronger terms, with regard to Robert E. Lee: “It’s always the good men who do the most harm in the world.”

This might seem perverse. How can good lead to evil? One thing to keep in mind here is that we are interested in beliefs and motivations, not what’s good in some objective sense. So the idea isn’t that evil is good; rather, it’s that evil is done by those who think they are doing good.

So from a moral perspective, empathy can lead us astray. We may believe we are doing good or that our actions are justified but this may not necessarily be true for all involved. This is especially troublesome when we consider how we are affected by a growing list of cognitive biases.

Empathy and Biases

While empathy may not be required to motivate us to save a drowning child, it can still help us consider the differing experiences or suffering of another person thus motivating us to consider things from their perspective or thus act to relieve their suffering:

I see the bullied teenager and might be tempted initially to join in with his tormenters, out of sadism or boredom or a desire to dominate or be popular, but then I empathize—I feel his pain, I feel what it’s like to be bullied—so I don’t add to his suffering. Maybe I even rise to his defense. Empathy is like a spotlight directing attention and aid to where it’s needed.

On the surface this seems like an excellent case for the positive power of empathy; it shines a “spotlight” on a person in need and motivates us to help them. But what happens when we dig a little deeper into this metaphor? Bloom writes

… spotlights have a narrow focus, and this is one problem with empathy. It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

He adds:

Further, spotlights only illuminate what they are pointed at, so empathy reflects our biases. Although we might intellectually believe that the suffering of our neighbor is just as awful as the suffering of someone living in another country, it’s far easier to empathize with those who are close to us, those who are similar to us, and those we see as more attractive or vulnerable and less scary. Intellectually, a white American might believe that a black person matters just as much as a white person, but he or she will typically find it a lot easier to empathize with the plight of the latter than the former. In this regard, empathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that prejudice does.

We are all predisposed to care more deeply for those we are close to. From a purely biological perspective, we will care for and protect our children and families before the children or families of strangers. Our decision making often falls victim to narrow framing, and our actions are affected by biases like Liking/Loving and Disliking/Hating and our tendency to discount the pain of people we don’t like:

We are constituted to favor our friends and family over strangers, to care more about members of our own group than people from different, perhaps opposing, groups. This fact about human nature is inevitable given our evolutionary history. Any creature that didn’t have special sentiments toward those that shared its genes and helped it in the past would get its ass kicked from a Darwinian perspective; it would falter relative to competitors with more parochial natures. This bias to favor those close to us is general—it influences who we readily empathize with, but it also influences who we like, who we tend to care for, who we will affiliate with, who we will punish, and so on.

There are many causes for human biases — empathy is only one — but taking a step back, we can see how the intuitive gut responses motivated by emotional empathy can negatively affect our ability to make rational decisions.

Empathy’s narrow focus, specificity, and innumeracy mean that it’s always going to be influenced by what captures our attention, by racial preferences, and so on. It’s only when we escape from empathy and rely instead on the application of rules and principles or a calculation of costs and benefits that we can, to at least some extent, become fair and impartial.

While many of us are motivated to be good and to make good decisions, it isn’t always cut and dry. Our preferences for whom to help or which organizations to support are affected by our biases. If we’re not careful, empathy can affect our ability to see the potential impacts of our actions. However, considering these impacts takes much more than empathy and a desire to do good; it takes awareness of our biases and mental effort to combat their effects:

… doing actual good, instead of doing what feels good, requires dealing with complex issues and being mindful of exploitation from competing, sometimes malicious and greedy, interests. To do so, you need to step back and not fall into empathy traps. The conclusion is not that one shouldn’t give, but rather that one should give intelligently, with an eye toward consequences.

In addition to biases like Liking/Loving and Disliking/Hating, empathy can lead to biases related to the Representative Heuristic. Actions motivated by empathy often fail to take the broader picture into account; the spotlight doesn’t encourage us to consider base rates or sample size when we make our decisions. Instead, we are motivated by positive emotions for a specific individual or small group:

Empathy is limited as well in that it focuses on specific individuals. Its spotlight nature renders it innumerate and myopic: It doesn’t resonate properly to the effects of our actions on groups of people, and it is insensitive to statistical data and estimated costs and benefits.

Part of the challenge that exists with empathy is this innumeracy that Bloom describes. It is impossible for us to form genuine empathic connections with abstractions. Conversely, if we see the suffering of one, empathy can motivate us to help make it stop. As Mother Theresa said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” This is what psychologists call “the identifiable victim effect.”

While many of us are motivated to be good and to make good decisions, it isn’t always cut and dry.

Perhaps an example will help illustrate.  On October 17, 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell 22 feet down an eight-inch-diameter well in the backyard of her home in Midland, Texas. Over the next 2 ½ days, fire, police, and volunteer rescuers worked around the clock to save her. Media coverage of the emergency was broadcast all over the world resulting in Jessica McClure becoming internationally known as “Baby Jessica” and prompting then-President Ronald Reagan to proclaim that “…everybody in America became the godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on.” The intense coverage and global awareness led to an influx of donations, resulting in an $800,000 trust being established in Jessica’s name.

What prompted this massive outpouring of concern and support? There are millions of children in need every day all over the world. How many of the people who sent donations to Baby Jessica had ever tried to help these faceless children? In the case of Baby Jessica, they had an identifiable victim, and empathy motivated many of them to help Jessica and her family. They could imagine what it might feel like for those poor parents and they felt genuine concern for the child’s future; all the other needy children around the world were statistical abstractions. This ability to identify and put a face on the suffering child and their family enables us to experience an empathic response with them, but the random children and their families remain empathically out of reach.

None of this is to say that rescuers should not have worked to save Jessica McClure — she was a real-world example of Mencius’s proverbial drowning child — but there are situations every day where we choose to help individuals at the cost of the continued suffering of others. Our actions often have diffuse and unknowable impacts.

If our concern is driven by thoughts of the suffering of specific individuals, then it sets up a perverse situation in which the suffering of one can matter more than the suffering of a thousand.

Furthermore, not only are we more likely to empathize with the identifiable victim, our empathy has its limits in scale as well. If we hear that an individual in a faraway land is suffering, we may have an empathic response, but will that response be increased proportionally if we learned that thousands or millions of people suffered? Adam Smith got to the heart of this question in The Theory of Moral Sentiments when he wrote:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labors of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened.

Empathy can inadvertently motivate us to act to save the one at the expense of the many. While the examples provided are by no means clear-cut issues, it is worth considering how the morality or goodness of our actions to help the few may have negative consequences for the many.

Charlie Munger has written and spoken about the Kantian Fairness Tendency, in which he suggests that for certain systems to be moral to the many, they must be unfair to the few.

For certain systems to be moral to the many, they must be unfair to the few.

Empathy and Reason

We are emotional creatures, then, but we are also rational beings, with the capacity for rational decision-making. We can override, deflect, and overrule our passions, and we often should do so. It’s not hard to see this for feelings like anger and hate—it’s clear that these can lead us astray, that we do better when they don’t rule us and when we are capable of circumventing them.

While we need kindness and compassion and we should strive to be good people making good decisions, we are not necessarily well served by empathy in this regard; emotional empathy’s negatives often outweigh its positives. Instead, we should rely on our capacity to reason and control our emotions. Empathy is not something that can be removed or ignored; it is a normal function of our brains after all, but we can and do combine reason with our natural instincts and intuitions:

The idea that human nature has two opposing facets—emotion versus reason, gut feelings versus careful, rational deliberation—is the oldest and most resilient psychological theory of all. It was there in Plato, and it is now the core of the textbook account of cognitive processes, which assumes a dichotomy between “hot” and “cold” mental processes, between an intuitive “System 1” and a deliberative “System 2.”

We know from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow that these two systems are not inherently separate in practice. They are both functioning in our brains at the same time.

Some decisions are made faster due to heuristics and intuitions from experiences or our biology, while other decisions are made in a more deliberative and slow fashion using reason. Bloom writes:

We go through a mental process that is typically called “choice,” where we think about the consequences of our actions. There is nothing magical about this. The neural basis of mental life is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought—with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions.

We have an impulsive, emotional, and intuitive decision-making system in System 1 and a deliberative, reasoning, and (sometimes) rational decision-making system in System 2.

We will always have emotional reactions, but on average our decision making will be better served by improving our ability to reason rather than leveraging our ability to empathize

We will always have emotional reactions, but on average our decision making will be better served by improving our ability to reason rather than by leveraging our ability to empathize. One way to increase our ability to reason is to focus on improving our self-control:

Self-control can be seen as the purest embodiment of rationality in that it reflects the working of a brain system (embedded in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that lies behind the forehead) that restrains our impulsive, irrational, or emotive desires.

While Bloom is unabashedly against empathy as an inherent force for good in the world, he is also a firm supporter of being and doing good. He believes that the “feeling with” nature of emotional empathy leads us to make biased and bad decisions despite our best intentions and that we should instead foster and encourage the “caring for” nature of compassion while combining it with our intelligence, self-control, and ability to reason:

… none of this is to deny the importance of traits such as compassion and kindness. We want to nurture these traits in our children and work to establish a culture that prizes and rewards them. But they are not enough. To make the world a better place, we would also want to bless people with more smarts and more self-control. These are central to leading a successful and happy life—and a good and moral one.

 

[Editor’s note: Where you see boldface in block quotes, emphasis has been added by Farnam Street.]