Interrogating Empathy

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Interrogating Empathy

Where I poke holes in my own reasoning for shits and giggles.

1. Empathy, the physiological basis for ideas like "the golden rule," recognizes that others are like us, and urges us to treat them accordingly.

2. Empathy is the ability to intuitively construct a model of another person's mind, to predict their behavior, and is involuntary.

3. When natural empathy is not present, a person feels no obligation to another.

4. Empathy is a construct of another person's experience, not the reception of deliberate communication. It is a projection.

5. It is possible another's experience is not like our own, and our projection is mistaken. An extreme example would be the typical human response to another type of animal eating its young. The action, though practical to the animal, is emotionally incomprehensible to most people. We may have, until that point, found cues that made the animal relatable, but its mind is counter-intuitive to us.

6. In generally more marginal ways, we can find situations where respecting others as we do ourselves would be inappropriate, if not impossible.

7. Such is the case of the man trying to understand women's reproductive rights; the situation may be reasoned out, but the subjective experience of being pregnant is simply unavailable.

8. To still a lesser extent, this is also true of empathy in general. As no two people are exactly alike, communication must be pursued to correct our models for their minds or obtain specific information about their experiences.

9. Empathy as a philosophical basis for behavior must then be restricted according to what is known about a specific person, or what can most generally be considered a universal to the human experience (thanks daretoknow for bringing this up), making it another probabilistic exercise.

10. The understanding that our own feelings aren't always applicable to the just treatment of others weakens the universality of concepts like "the golden rule," because we're confronted with exceptions to it. It wouldn't be possible to for a man to understand a woman's claim to reproductive rights (being neither a pregnant woman, nor a fetus), but he is confronted with the choice of voting for or against them, relying on something other than empathy as a basis.

11. Respecting the rights of others to do as they please in all cases would be an extreme relativism, in which we forfeit the right to judge or restrict others in any way.

12. We must either draw an arbitrary distinction or find some observable delineation by which to vary our approaches, to understand when intervention can probably be justified, and not.

13. Such a distinction could be a gradation outward from ourselves, from the most relevant and most like us, to the least relevant and the least like us. Where a person is relevant because they live in our town and their actions affect us directly, and their upbringing is similar to our own, we have more of a basis to judge them by our own intuitive standards (to empathize) than we would in the latter case, where a person is less relevant, for instance, because of geological or political separation, or because they are from a culture inscrutable to us.

14. This does still leave ambiguities: do we allow a human sacrifice within a cultural enclave in our town because we can't understand the culture well enough to judge it? I say no, but justifying that answer is another matter.