Saturday, November 19, 2016

Progress means changing the world ... for which we need empathy

Over the years, I have come to appreciate John Rawls's "veil of ignorance" a lot.  I mean, a lot.  (Click here if you need a ninety-second briefing.)

Unlike Rawls's theoretical structure of an original position, we have the real world to deal with.  It is this world, not a hypothetical scenario, that we have to work with.  Which means, we need to figure out how to understand what it might mean to be a person of the type that we are not.  The "other" could be a different gender from us.  A different religion.  Different skin color.  Different upbringing.  Different whatever. If we begin to understand the circumstances in which the others might find themselves, then, well, we are beginning to have that wonderful aspect of what it means to be human: Empathy.

It is not the emotional empathy that I am referring to, like when we see the stereotypical photo of a fly buzzing around a poor kid with a runny nose.  Nope. As Roman Krznaric explains in the video that I have embedded in this post (or you can watch here) it is cognitive empathy.  We imagine what the people in Aleppo are going through.  We imagine what the homeless in the nation's capital experience when they are only a few blocks away from the President's palace.  We imagine what the hijab-wearing Muslim is worried about as a result of the elections.

Krznaric referred to Adam Smith, which, of course, intrigued me.  Smith, is often hailed by the free market and the pro-business people.  (Pro-business is not the same as being pro-market.)  However, that is cherry-picking from what Smith had to say.  Smith not only wrote about the invisible hand and the power of self-interest, but was a moral philosopher.  Krznaric quotes Smith about empathy.  The think-tanks and the business lobbies conveniently forget that Smith was quite a philosopher.  Either they forget, or they are not even informed about it--perhaps the latter!

Krznaric quotes from Smith's other book, A theory of moral sentiments: " ... by changing places in fancy with the sufferer, that we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels."  When the president-elect said all those horrible things only a couple of weeks ago when he was a candidate, many of us worried that it reflected an utter lack of an ability to "fancy with the sufferer"--a complete and total lack of empathy.  There will be situations during his presidency when he will have to be the comforter-in-chief.  There will be situations when he will have to weigh whether or not to bomb a place or a country.  There will be situations when his policies might have drastic effects on people.  But, when he lacks empathy ... progress will stall.  We might even regress.


Ramesh said...

Empathy and that man ? Perish the thought.

Sriram Khé said...

to use his words, "that is sad" :(

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