Years ago, my friend Julie and I took a road trip to Maine in my car. I drove most of the way, but one night she offered to drive us back from a lobster shack so I could enjoy another beer. I gratefully accepted but, as I watched her take the tight country corners in fourth gear, I came to regret my decision. When I could take it no more, I angrily insisted that she downshift. Of course, after she did, I felt awful and apologised. Julie thought for a minute, then said: ‘I was surprised at first at how upset you were, but then I thought about how I would feel if it was my husband driving my car, and I totally got it.’
Julie was able to take my perspective, in the sense that she empathised and identified with me. For a crucial moment, she inhabited my reality and saw the world through my eyes. This capacity is what allowed Julie to understand, and forgive, my transformation into an enraged backseat driver.
Not that long ago, writers and scholars applauded such feats of empathy. Books such as Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization (2009), Martin Hoffman’s Empathy and Moral Development (2000) and Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (2009) crowded our bookshelves and headspace. But these days, empathy has fallen from grace, and its detractors are lining up to reveal its terrible shortcomings. Not only is it less crucial to moral development than we used to believe, argues the philosopher Jesse Prinz, but it limits us, biases us, and focuses our attention on the few over the many. According to the psychologist Paul Bloom in Against Empathy (2016), it does more harm than good from a moral perspective, while Fritz Breithaupt in The Dark Sides of Empathy (2019) says that it might even foment violence. In the political arena, the former US Republican Senator Jeff Sessions protested at the Supreme Court appointment of Sonia Sotomayor, favoured by the then president Barack Obama for her empathy, on the basis that ‘Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another.’
Conservatives are not the only ones taking aim at empathy. Some of its harshest critics are card-carrying liberal academics, such as Prinz and Bloom. Their positions appear to be grounded in the belief that, in the moral sphere, we ought to rely on objective, impartial reasoning. Empathy, they tell us, might be useful in the private realm, where it can cement friendships or help us accept our partner’s foibles, but it has no real place in public life.
The problem with these criticisms is that they ignore how the human mind works. They rely on the unspoken premise that, when empathy is not in play, we think objectively and impartially about ourselves, about other people and about the world around us. But nothing could be further from the truth. We are fragile and limited human animals, making our way through a complex and multifaceted world. This simple fact suggests that our pre-reflective conception of reality isn’t a reflection – flawed or otherwise – of some objective truth, so much as a composite picture based on what our own interests motivate us to perceive. Our senses organise the environment for us according to what we need to survive and thrive in it.
In other words, we are already biased. And because empathy forces us to take up another, albeit biased, perspective on the world, it actually ends up making us more, not less objective. As Friedrich Nietzsche writes, there is ‘only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity”, be.’
The idea that what humans understand is shaped by the kind of beings we are can be traced back at least as far as Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Here, he argues that we can know the world to the extent that it is formed by our minds, to the extent that the mind imposes a certain order on what he calls ‘the manifold of raw intuition’. It is by necessity that we experience the world in time and space, even when we have no compelling reasons to think these structures exist outside our minds. What we take for granted as forming part of the fabric of the world, such as objects and causation, are in fact our mind’s way of organising the stream of information that flows from our senses.
Following Kant’s idea, but rejecting its metaphysical baggage, Edmund Husserl encouraged philosophers to give up figuring out how we can know the world itself. Instead, we ought to focus on the experienced world, its phenomena. Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, advanced a similar idea, but instead of focusing on perception and understanding, he narrowed in on action. Our primary way of existing in the world, he claimed, is as actors in it and users of it. Reflection is an afterthought. We are not thinkers first, and actors second, as a cursory perusal of Western philosophy might lead us to suppose. It’s the other way around. Seeing things as ‘ready-to-hand’ – things to be used in one way or another – forms a central part of Heidegger’s philosophical vision of human experience. We see doorways as enabling us to move through them, stones as projectiles, horses as ridable. While this way of appreciating objects in the world might be orthogonal to their intrinsic natures, it has everything to do with what we can use them for.
Taking different perspectives into account becomes essential for grasping the world, ourselves and others
Though Heidegger understood how important action is to our understanding, it was only with Maurice Merleau-Ponty that the true importance of the body came to the fore. The world, he argued, is a space of possibilities, determined partly by our capacity for movement. Our skill in moving our bodies opens up new ways of engaging with what’s around us and, therefore, new ways of thinking about it. Rather than concepts or ideas, what organises our experience is our ‘readiness’ to encounter and interact with objects, people and the environment. Our consciousness is characterised more by ‘I can’ than by ‘I think’. This radical departure from traditional ways of thinking about the mind, in fact, has recently regained popularity in the sciences of the mind, under umbrellas such as ‘embodied cognition’ and ‘4E cognition’ (a shorthand for the idea that thought is embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended).
With the focus on the body and its possibilities for action comes the recognition that we represent the world relative to our own agency. In order to reach for a cup, for instance, I need to figure out where the cup is relative to me, how wide my grip needs to be, and how tightly I need to hold it in order to move it without dropping it. How do I do that? Well, what I see is organised in such a way that it enables or facilitates my acting on it. This is seeing in perspective. If this is right – that we always perceive the world in relation to ourselves – then taking different perspectives into account becomes essential for grasping the world, ourselves, and other people.
Philosophical speculation will take you only so far. As luck would have it, a whole swath of results in psychology supports this speculation concerning the importance of perspective. In a study conducted by the cognitive scientist and psychologist Bertram Malle and his collaborators, they found that, when we think of ourselves, what grabs our attention the most are our own experiences and feelings. By contrast, when we think of other people, we tend to focus on their intentions. While it’s painfully obvious to us that other people have beliefs, and often very strange or deluded ones at that, we don’t think about our beliefs much at all – at least not as beliefs. Instead, we operate under the illusion that we directly experience the world as it is. Similarly, Corey Cusimano and Geoffrey Goodwin have found that we tend to think that other people can change their beliefs if they try; but, since we assume our own views are based on solid evidence, it’s much harder for us to do so.
Such actor- or agent-observer asymmetries, as they’re called, are found throughout social psychology. When we think of our own requirements, our physical needs (food, shelter, safety) seem just as important as our psychological ones (stimulation, the respect of others, the ability to make our own decisions). However, when we think of other people, particularly people in need, we rate their physical needs as more important, Juliana Schroeder and Nicholas Epley found. Likewise, when we think of what motivates us, our ambitions, principles and ideals come to mind – yet we tend to believe that others are more motivated by external rewards such as money, prestige or reputation. We reflect on our own actions in light of how well they were performed and whether they met our objectives, but on those of others in terms of their interpersonal and moral consequences.
Are these asymmetries simply biases that come from our entrenched egocentrism? Perhaps. But a simpler, and kinder, interpretation is that they’re the result of what’s immediately available to us. We can access others only through what they express by means of their bodies, whereas our own thoughts, feelings and sensations simply are. We know that others have rich inner lives just like we do, but our immediate experience is of their expressive bodies.
Victims find the perpetrator’s intentions unfathomable. Perpetrators think the victim helped provoke the action
Asymmetries also appear in how we visually recall our past experiences. Research pioneered by Georgia Nigro and Ulric Neisser shows that, although we usually recall an event from inside the scene, more or less how we experienced it, we sometimes recall seeing ourselves. It’s common for people to remember themselves swimming from a point above themselves, for example. Why this is the case is a bit of a puzzle. Lisa Libby and her colleagues found a clue when they discovered that taking a different perspective on oneself allows a person to represent different aspects of a situation. When we represent ourselves in our own memories, we focus on contextual factors, such as the larger significance of actions and events, the larger setting, and how we and our actions appear to others. But when we recall an event from the point of view we experienced it from, the details of the immediate environment are clearly represented, as are our bodily reactions and our feelings, and the where and when of the event.
Many of us are intimately familiar with the asymmetries that can arise in disputes with spouses and friends. In interpersonal conflict, it’s easy to detect large differences in how a situation is constructed. The social psychologist Roy Baumeister has found (perhaps predictably) that, when it comes to ordinary wrongdoing such as breaking promises or betraying secrets, perpetrators minimise the importance of what they’ve done, whereas victims maximise it. But a more surprising difference is that victims find the perpetrator’s intentions unfathomable, describing them as ‘incoherent, contradictory, arbitrary, or senseless’. Perpetrators, on the other hand, lean towards thinking that the victim helped provoke the action, that the action was actually justified given the circumstances, or that it simply couldn’t be helped. Another surprising fact is that perpetrators of everyday wrongdoing maintain that their actions didn’t really have serious consequences – something belied by the fact that victims remain angry and offended.
Psychological research, then, shows that the way we think of other people’s attitudes and actions differs from how we think of our own, and philosophical theory explains why. Put simply, what we understand springs from why and how we are trying to understand it; we grasp it in relation to our physicality, our ability to act, our environment, and our needs and interests.
To see how this works, recall the story about my friend Julie. When she took my perspective, she didn’t simply imagine how she would feel in my situation, and then suppose that’s how I felt. If she had, she would have imagined watching herself drive my car from the passenger seat – that might have been interesting, but it wouldn’t have helped her understand me. What she did instead was to imagine a situation in which she is the protagonist; she thought of her husband driving her car. This situation isn’t mine, but it replicates two of my central relationships in the situation: that to her, and that to my car. This is how she manages to understand the significance to me of her driving my car the way she does.
What Julie appreciated, consciously or unconsciously, is that, to understand why I am upset, she must think of what is happening as if she were related to the situation as I am. Why? Because our primary way of thinking about the world is in relation to ourselves, and it is precisely what matters to me that she is trying to understand. Because of our similarities – for instance, we both have cars, drive shift, and let other people drive our cars – Julie is able to capture what is special about my perspective in that situation.
In Being and Nothingness (1943), Jean-Paul Sartre asks us to imagine peering through a keyhole and listening at a door. Perhaps we are a jealous lover. Perhaps we are merely curious about what’s happening on the other side. While we’re crouched there, we are absorbed in figuring out what’s going on in the room. As far as we are concerned, we are merely gathering intel. Then we hear a sound down the hallway. Someone is coming! At that moment, we realise we’re peeping – we recognise that we are a peeping Tom.
Sartre would say that this realisation is the result of the presence of another consciousness. The way I’d put it is to say the shift comes from considering how we might look to someone coming down the hallway, which pulls us out of our immersed, unreflective way of regarding our actions. We reflect on ourselves as if through the eyes of another, and so recognise more fully what we are doing. We take another’s perspective on ourselves – or, more precisely, we look at ourselves as we would look at another person doing what we’re doing. We have reversed the agent-observer asymmetries I have just described.
Usually, putting oneself in other people’s shoes is thought to increase our insight into other people. But it can also help us understand ourselves. Any action has at least two sides: there is the inner reality of the person who acts, and the outer reality of those affected by the action. We are partial to thinking of our actions from the inside, in terms of what we intend to accomplish with them. In Sartre’s example, I’m gathering important information about what my lover is doing. But this action is also peeping or spying, whether I think of it that way or not. And another person is more likely to think of what I do in these terms. Sartre’s point is that we cannot decide by ourselves what we are doing; rather, the way others see us serves as a guide to the reality of the situation. The other person’s point of view has authority. It is not something we can simply dismiss (although in some circumstances we surely must). This is another reason empathy is so important: we get a clearer and more nuanced view not only of others, but of ourselves.
Our system of law and ethics reflects a point of view occupied by the minority of the population
In the abstract, it sounds easy to agree that more perspectives are better than one. But how does it work in the public sphere? Perhaps the critics are right that empathy only allows us to understand ourselves, and a few people, a little better?
The challenge from Sessions – that empathy for one part is always prejudice against another – reveals two problems with current criticisms of empathy. First, if we’re adjudicating between the claims of two people, nothing requires us to empathise with just one of the parties. Surely, we can take the perspective of both – not necessarily at the same time, but one after the other. Second, legal culture suffers from the rather dubious assumption that, in the absence of empathy, judges are impartial and objective. Yet the evidence is clear that white males fare better in the justice system than women or people of colour do. That’s unlikely to be a coincidence. Judges, the majority of whom remain white and male in Western countries, are already biased towards experiencing the world from the point of view of white males.
Judges often insist that they merely apply law to facts, as if the facts were lying around ready to be picked up by anyone. But much of the law concerns intention. If there are facts about such a thing, they are facts of a different order. And they are facts that must be inferred. Without taking another’s perspective, only certain things stand out about a person’s actions – and how judges view those things is, in part, a reflection of the judge. To counterbalance this awkward and unavoidable fact, a judge needs to think about a defendant in new ways and reconsider his or her own pre-reflective ways of thinking about the case. Perspective-taking, when done well, helps them do just that.
One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons shows a woman in a bookstore asking the owner: ‘Do you have any books on the white-male experience?’ It’s funny, of course, only because most books in any given store will meet that description. The bigger reality is that our system of law and ethics reflects a point of view occupied by the minority of the population, which has historically wielded the most power. Insisting on the impartiality of this perspective is simply another way of holding on to that power.
The facts about what is right and wrong, or good and bad, derive neither from power, nor from unalterable facts built into the structure of the Universe. Instead, they are facts that emerge as a result of conscious and sentient beings living together and sharing resources. This is why it’s so crucial that we take into consideration the points of view of the many different people – and creatures – who are stakeholders in the social, legal and moral order. Doing so might not be possible by a mere act of the imagination, like the one Julie performed on the way back from the lobster shack. Being participants in the situation, and being very similar, were crucial there. But to take the perspective of people and animals that are very different from us, we must learn to listen to what they have to say – and to listen from their position, not from our own.