Monday, September 07, 2015

The empathy disease

Did you get taken by the picture of Alan Kurdi, the dead boy on the beach?

Here is a NY Times account:

Why this boy?

It feels like an obscene question to ask of the photographs of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian Kurdish child whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey yesterday morning, images that have since appeared on the front pages of the major American and European newspapers and flooded Twitter ...

For me, it was the shoes. Aylan appeared in my Twitter feed early yesterday afternoon, and I spent the rest of the day wrecked by his image. More than once I found myself staring out the window, thinking about the boy on the beach.
As I understand it, the family was Syrian but had been living and working in Turkey for 3 years, and had relatives in Canada. The dad was sneaking into Europe for free dental work, and abandoned his 2 kids to drown when his boat capsized.

That is not the dad in the second picture. It is a police officer carrying away the abandoned body. The dad is probably getting his teeth fixed somewhere.

Apparently human beings are susceptible to being manipulated in this way. People look at this picture, see that the kid had a nice pair of shoes, and suddenly some empathy neurons get triggered that cause a desire to send aid to Syria or to take refugees.

If this emotional response were less common, then I would say that it is a mental illness. A more rational response might be for Canada to evict its Syrians or for Europe to stop giving free or cheap dental services to illegal aliens.

Update: For more evidence against empathy:
"Empathy," writes Paul Bloom in The New Yorker this week, "is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We're often at our best when we're smart enough not to rely on it." We'd be better off were we to supplant our flawed empathetic sensibilities with reason ...

His central argument is a utilitarian one: empathy is an often irrational emotional response that plays favorites, he says. It is thus a poor mechanism for solving real problems and making tough choices -- whether distributing international aid or making sacrifices today so that we don't warm our planet to oblivion tomorrow.
Bloom responds to critics and gives a recent interview. Pres. Barack Obama considers empathy a great virtue, altho his fans are often disappointed at how little of it he shows.

Update: Bloom complains that empathy leads people to prefer to help their own kids, over someone else's kids. I have to disagree, as I do not think that empathy is the main motivator for that.

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