David Brooks wrote a powerful column on Friday, a mini-diatribe against empathy. Apparently, empathy education is all the rage, the premise being that exposure to others’ difficult situations will lead to more right and moral action.
The catch, says Brooks, is that it doesn’t actually work. Empathy alone does not get people to engage in moral action when there’s a cost to taking that action. Worse, empathy alone may give one the sense that one is attuned to problems without having to do the hard work of acting to make a difference.
Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments.
Tough words indeed.
While empathy alone is, apparently, flaccid in its ability to illicit action, a burst of good feeling does produce changes:
In one experiment in the 1970s, researchers planted a dime in a phone booth. Eighty-seven percent of the people who found the dime offered to help a person who dropped some papers nearby, compared with only 4 percent who didn’t find a dime.
Brooks implies that this is a short-term effect, and what drives sustained action isn’t feeling alone but some code (moral, ethical, religious, military) on the part of the actor.
So here’s the generosity reflection: I’d argue that being wildly, inappropriately generous has two potential effects, if you’re open to them. The first is short-term, a kind of giddy euphoria that washes over you when you’re generous. That may lead directly to more right action. And the second (drip, drip, drip, over time) is an integration into one’s “code” (whatever it is, and wherever it comes from) of generosity as a core operating principle, an integral part of how we describe ourselves to ourselves.
Plus, I like the fact that it’s about action. We talk so much about what we need to do, and talk is inevitably cheap. The only way I’ve found to really change my behaviors is by actually changing my behaviors.