Thursday, January 31, 2008

The ease of empathy and the simple errors often made

Recent conflicts brought this subject to mind.


An essential tool for understanding and for making correct decisions. Without it there can be no morality or ethics or fairness or justice.

However like most parts of human apparatus the innate natural form we possess is flawed, biased and prone to simple illusions just like our sight, hearing or other senses or our intuition and unconcious thought processes. These are all valuable and essential things but without being aware of our blindspots we run over small children with our cars or other such examples.

So, there needs to be a higher understanding of empathy than the innate intuitive uncncious one we are born with, especially as the strength of this trait is variable in people with some absolutely devoid of it.

So how can someone be more accurate, more conscious in their empathy, more aware? How can they develop an intellectual empathy to supplement or even when neccessary override their intuitive one?

Well lets start with a basic simple precept.


Almost all people want to be treated as equal. People have differences, some are strong, some are smart etc. Some even have more of these qualities than others but still a physically frail and less intelligent person still burrs up at the notion that others should make their decisions for them, and quite rightly too. Which values get considered more valuable are generally arbitrary at best. So if you don't like being treated as less than others (and it's a rare human that has never experienced this in some way) simply do your best to avoid treating others as less.

This simple, logical concept covers almost every situation and example. From this most empathy can be easilly realised. But we can get more sophisticated, with important ramifications.


If the reason all people should be equal is because almost no-one wants others making their decisions for them then it goes hand-in-hand with freedom. The capacity to make choices for one's self. A problem many have is working out where one persons freedom ends and anothers begins. For example is someone free to go around and murder? This is actually generally easier to measure than most realise. A murderers freedom to commit murder extends as far as their victims freedom to choose to be murdered. If the person does not, fully informed and of their own free will, choose to be murdered then murdering them is wrong. So just from this example we can see that total sanctity of freedom over the self needs to recognise the equal freedom of others to be valid. So where does this lead? Well a person must be able to give informed consent, which means they must be mentally capable of undertsanding fully what they are agreeing to which is why minimum age-limits on many activities are appropriate to ensure that consent can occur properly. Now a persons self, their physiclity is clearly the central domain of that person, they are the ruler of it and no-one else has claim over it nor may do anything to it without their informed consent.

What if they are incapable of making an informed consent? Say they are unconcious or injured or brain-damaged etc and have no do-not-resussitate bracelets or similar prior statements of intent to consent or not to various things? Well the simplistic arguent is again easy, the best course of action is to assume consent to those things that maximise their capacity for developing informed consent in the future. So a comatose peron recieves medical care to increase the chance they could recover so that they can then give consent.

Now if a person has total rule over their body, what else do they rule over? Well their personal possession. These may not include other people of course, there the equality comes in again. What about pets, children and those unable to give informed consent? Well those aren't poseessions, we'll come to those in a moment.

So say someone is using their freedom to say something that another doesn't like, that hurts the others feelings? Isn't that crossing the line? No, so long as the hearer has the capacity to ignore the speaker or to move away from the speaker. If the speaker traps the hearer, corners them or shouts over the top of them then, and only then have they interfered with the other persons freedom. This is a really easy way to determine right from wrong and to empathise with others. They may do different things with their freedoms than you but, so long as you are respecting their freedom and they are respecting yours and others then thats ok.

If two or more people wish to do something that involves the selves of each person or their possessions or shared posessions this requires mutual informed consent, where everyone involved is not pressured enticed encouraged or forced but freely agrees.


So now if we accept that everyone should be treated as equals and that this leads to the importance of recognising freedom and of having freedom then the next logical step is repsonsibility. What are people responsible for? Well to be treated equally you should be treating others as equals, this is essential for you to justify your own equality. The same is true of freedom, to deserve yours you must allow all others. You mjust respect the limit of informed consent. Now what about those who cannot give informed consent? You have a responsibility to them, to meet their needs. You can't make all their decisions for them from your own perspective, instead you must cater to their needs that will maximise their capacity to make informed choices in the future. So children must be fed, must be given access to information and given opportunities to learn how to make informed choices rather than having all their choices proscribed for them for what their guardians determine is their own best interest. This is very important because no matter the guardians personal choices it is vital that they respect that, once capable of making their own informed choices that those choices are respected even when they are disagreed with. For many the idea of letting others do things they don't want them to do is a difficult one, but I'll explain ways to make that easier and to empathise with differances shortly.

What about pets and those permanantly unable to make informed choices? Well the latter catagory may not be inevitably so, modern medicine, especially regenerative medicine is on the march. Untill then the basic rule of caring for them until they can make their own choices continues. The same is true for pets (until/unless animal sentience becomes a clear scientific fact) then they must be cared for in ways that maximise their capacity. Another way of looking at it is results-based. What makes them happy? What makes them healthy? This must be objective and scientific. Arguments that something should make them happy or healthy are not valid, this is imposing your view over theirs.. another thing I'll get to shortly.

Defending equality and freedom.

There is an extra responsibility on top of the others. It is not enough to simply not interfere with other peoples equality to justify your own. It is also important to actively defend their equality. This is important because not everyone understands the idea of equality and not everyone agrees with it. So if someone was denying you your freedoms you'd want others to help you wouldn't you. So you should do the same. You are logically obliged to do the same in fact. It is wrong to do this only for those you like or that you agree with as that isn't equal, that is defending those who are popular with you. To treat others as equals you must defend everyones freedoms and equality. You must put a minimum of as much effort into helping them gain their equality as you would want them to do so on your behalf if it was yours threatened.

Choosing the correct similarity to understand the different.

This is the most common error in empathy.
Ok, so if all people are to be treated as equals they need freedom bordered by consent, bound with responsibility then what? Well by understanding that people are different yet equal you only need to empathise with their situation to get understanding rather than specifics. I'll give an example of this.

A friend of mine hates piercings and finds them gross. He has a physical reaction of revulsion to them. On the other hand he likes tattoos and finds them beautiful. Someone else I know loves piercings but hates tattoos. These seem to be opposites, how can each understand and empathise with the other? It's really quite easy. Instead of imagining himself getting piercings where he'd want to remove them imeditaly he simply needs to imagine that piercings for the other person are what tattoos are for him. Now it may vary in intensity, what is a big deal to one person might be minor to another but few people have not had something that is important in their life. First you accept that something unimportant to you is important to another, then you can start to understand why.

The most common error in empathy is putting yourself in the other persons role and then expecting them to make the same choices as yourself. If however you imagine an accurately equivalent situation it is easy to gain an understanding. This way it becomes easy for anyone to empathise with just about anyone else. To understand something that is different you must compare not what it is to you, but to compare what it is to them to something of you. Choosing the right similarity to understand and accept the difference.

Even where this isn't possible because no similar referance can be found by learning as much as possible about others it is possible to imagine things close enough to erode the distance between the people.

I've tasted a wide variety of discrimination, because of my cheekbones and eye shape I was thought as a child to be asian by other kids so I experienced a little brief racism, because I was smarter than average I tasted a lot of anti-intellectualism, because I was a goth, because of my femininity, my disability.. all the discrimination had different labels but I realised it's all, exactly the same. Not an ounce of difference at it's heart. I've seen plenty too, sexism from men to women, from women to women, from women to men and from men to men, bigotry towards those less intelligent is the same as that towards those more intelligent. Some of these things were brief, some I put up with all my life but they are all the same thing. A failure to accept difference and respect freedom.

This isn't a perfect system and there are still grey areas but the basis of it would help probably 90% or more of people I've met or interacted with.

To cut it to it's simplest:
Empathy requires respecting equality.
Equality means and requires Universal freedoms, universal rights, universal respect, universal tolerance, universal defence.
Empathy requires choosing the correct similarity to understand the difference.

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