Sunday, 31 May 2009

More Struggling With Empathy

I can't get hold of David Brooks latest op-ed because I'm not a subscriber to the NYT. This is a shame, because he's talking about the empathy subject again, which is always interesting. The only extract I have (h/t Attaturk) makes him seem somewhat disingenuous, but it would be nice to see it in context.

Here it, for what it's worth.
Right-leaning thinkers from Edmund Burke to Friedrich Hayek understood that emotion is prone to overshadow reason. They understood that emotion can be a wise guide in some circumstances and a dangerous deceiver in others. It’s not whether judges rely on emotion and empathy, it’s how they educate their sentiments within the discipline of manners and morals, tradition and practice.
Uh huh.

Once again we find ourselves presented with a classic Conservative trick. Emotion and empathy aren't the same thing. Arguing against empathy per se is harder to do, though, so Brook assumes that empathic judgement leads to emotional judgement, and then says that's bad. [1]

Without access to the whole piece, I obviously have to be careful in drawing conclusions. What I feel comfortable saying is that Brook will, almost certainly, be trying one of two things. Either he will be hoping no-one notices his rather shoddy sleight of hand (which is both dishonest and insulting to his readers), or he earlier (or later) in the column will have conceded that "No-one is saying empathic judgements are or must lead to emotional judgments, but" which is a fairly common tactic amongst journalists and commentators and essentially means "I can't object to the current situation A, so I'll object to B, a situation that hasn't occurred, and then point out that B is not unreachable from A". Which is more honest, of course, but also renders the whole thing kind of pointless.

My main problem with this paragraph, though, is the suggestion that it's right-leaning thinkers who are aware that emotion can cloud reason. It isn't. Smart people across the board that are aware of that, thank you very much. Anyone who thinks that the right has clear-headed thinking sewn up really hasn't been paying attention.

Update: Thanks to Tom, I've finally read the entire text of Brook's column. It's actually very strong in a lot of places, but I stand by my original conclusion that he's conflated empathy and emotion and gone on from there.

[1] Which is often true, but it's worth noting that a combination of emotional and empathic judging would be superior to emotional judging on its own, since the former means letting ones sympathy get in the way, and the latter substitutes that sympathy for naked self-interest. It's also fun to listen to a man who supported John McCain (who ran a campaign that, whatever else it was, was pretty unambiguously aimed at persuading people to vote emotionally) suggest that cool-headed logic is a good thing. Or maybe I'm being unfair. Brooks notes the right understands how emotion can lead to bad decisions, but he doesn't actually suggest it's wrong to manipulate that truth to one's own ends.

20 comments:

Tom said...

You don't need to be a subscriber - just register with the site.

Failing that, go to Google News and search for the title of the column ("The Empathy Issue"). For some reason this gives you access to the article without requiring registration.

Tom

SpaceSquid said...

Thanks, Tom. Hopefully I'll have time to view the whole thing later, and work out whether his line of argument is more firm than I've given him credit for.

Tom said...

I'm still hoping for your line on MP's expenses. Even the Daily Show has covered it!

Tom

Senior Spielbergo said...

UK politics? Squid does not cover UK politics!

SpaceSquid said...

"UK politics? Squid does not cover UK politics!"

This is true, of course, though my postage-stamp opinion is that it's the inevitable end result of any political party having been in power too long, and becoming almost insanely complacent.

Tom said...

Why does is matter which party was in power? The government explicitly had no role in the expenses system, and all proposed changes were given free votes in parliament.

Tom

Chemie said...

"UK politics? Squid does not cover UK politics!"

How about European politics? UK and European politics are far more entertaining/demanding. And you know, relevant to you/us. I'm far more concerned about the League of Polish Families running around with any influence in the EU than I am about some parochial bible bashers in the US. Although I am admittedly a little more interested in US military and diplomatic actions than I am with Merkel (although she is great fun when it comes to annoying Brown).

BigHead said...

And Berlusconi is just amazingly good fun.

SpaceSquid said...

"Why does is matter which party was in power? The government explicitly had no role in the expenses system, and all proposed changes were given free votes in parliament."

I guess I was drawing a parallel with what happened with the Tories. An awful lot of the situations that occurred under the umbrella title "sleaze" were not technically illegal, just arguably immoral (and often those arguments would be very easy) and hypocritical considering the government's line. In pop psychology terms, it seems reasonable to suggest enough time in power leads to a feeling of complacency when it comes to this sort of thing.

I'd be the first to admit that this is just my initial suggestion; I haven't been following this much at all.

Tom said...

The major difference is that the Major-era sleaze was confined purely to the Tories, whereas the expenses affair affects all parties. In fact the most ludicrous claims - the duck ponds and moat cleaning and so on - all came from Tory MPs. And yet somehow Cameron has come up smelling of roses.

I'm honestly surprised that you're not interested in this, given that we could potentially be witnessing the collapse of progressive politics in Britain. Obama's win was fine and dandy, but it's the home front that matters now.

Tom

SpaceSquid said...

"In fact the most ludicrous claims - the duck ponds and moat cleaning and so on - all came from Tory MPs. And yet somehow Cameron has come up smelling of roses."

I didn't know that. Well, it's not like I need much of an excuse to hate the Tories. Damn the Tories!

"I'm honestly surprised that you're not interested in this, given that we could potentially be witnessing the collapse of progressive politics in Britain."

Obviously I would be interested by the 'collapse of progressive politics', but I'm not sure why the two are linked. Would you mind expanding? On the point, obviously, not in real life. I wouldn't mind, obviously, but it would make you less limber and thus impede on your crab fishing.

BigHead said...

If people were clever enough it might lead to increased support for the Liberals, because there don't seem to be as many supervillains in their bunch of MPs than with the others.

Alas, it seems that the default response to a government filled with crooks is going to be to elect another government filled with crooks.

Chemie said...

Some brain munchings from a leftie with a European tinge.

http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,627730,00.html

Oh and Cameron's 'I'm relatively well off' almost killed me. Tories almost as much fun as 70-something philandering media mogul/politicians.

Tom said...

"John" Freedland is actually a Guardian columnist. Interesting to see the little differences in tone when writing for the Spiegel.

Squid - more than happy to expand at length, watch this space!

Tom

SpaceSquid said...

Awesome, Tom. If you like, you can email it to me, and I'll put it up as a post; I've been wanting to include guest writers for a while now.

Tom said...

Will do - guess I should start thinking up a silly blogging nickname.

Tom

Senior Spielbergo said...

You don’t get to think one up. One will be assigned to you after you are proven worthy.

Tomsk said...

Too late! In an effert to maintain some continuity I have become Tomsk, after the womble (not the oblast).

Tomsk said...

Now all I need to find out is how to edit comments to remove embarrassing spelling mistakes...

SpaceSquid said...

Dammit! I had £20 on Washington Irvine!

If you're very good, I'll upgrade your status to correct mistakes, but we'll see how we go.