[DISCLAIMER: Although I am using a conceptual distinction I got from the embedded Simon Baron-Cohen TEDx talk (where ever he got it from), I am not taking a position on his stance on Autism or Psychopathy. I have no point of view about Autism and have reflected on empathy and psychopathy in this blog before, here and here. I’m interested in the constituent parts of empathy that he lays out in relation to Smith and Hume’s Moral Sentiment. If you want to see some responses to Baron-Cohen on Autism, check out this blog or this one.]
Through the magic of Twitter, I was recently connected to a TEDx talk of Simon Baron Cohen on the erosion of empathy (embedded below). After the requisite National Socialist reference, he outlined a distinction between two different aspects or types of empathy: cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to imagine someone else’s thoughts and feelings, the ability to put yourself in their position. It is the recognition of the other’s state of being. Affective empathy is the drive to respond with the appropriate emotion.
This put me in mind of our past discussion of Adam Smith and David Hume on Moral Sentiment. Smith and Hume claimed that we build our understanding of morality by reflection (reason) on our reactions to people and events in comparison with the reactions of others. These sentiments, filtered through the lens of rational moral judgment, form the basis of morality in any given society. Smith explained the mechanism of sentiment as sympathy with others: the ability to use imagination to put oneself in another’s place, feel their woes and judge oneself with respect to that experience. That’s having a conscience.
I started out with the intent to see if I could reconcile Baron Cohen’s account with Smith and Hume’s and perhaps draw a distinction between a rational construction of morality vs a non-rational empathetic one. Now I’m not so sure how they do or don’t fit together.
The question of how empathy plays in morality in both accounts is similar. First, one needs to recognize when the situation of an other calls for empathy. This consists of two parts: one is being able to read external behaviors to identify suffering (or pain or sadness or whatever) and the second is the ability to imagine oneself in that other’s place. The latter is the critical part in that, on both accounts, it is only by making the imaginative leap that one can ‘know’ what the other is experiencing. Being able to recognize ‘outer’ clues to suffering isn’t enough to be empathetic: one must be able to recreate or approximate the other’s internal life in one’s imagination (Smith points out that even if one can only do so imperfectly, this is sufficient).
Now, if one recognizes another suffering and can identify with it, one is being empathetic. On the Smith/Hume account, empathy serves two purposes: first, one compares one’s own empathetic responses to those of others. Some seem to be shared, some not. Taking all that into account one uses judgment to fashion a concept of conventional morality. As in: I feel bad (empathetic response) when I see X and every one I know feels bad when they see X, ergo X must be bad. This is a bit of a simplification but the empathetic response is a guide for determining the moral.
Smith & Hume go further to say that empathy serves a second purpose and that is to motivate moral action. Not only does one realize (over time, developmentally) that response R to X is moral, the empathetic capacity provides motivation to do R when X occurs. This is Moral Sentiment. Smith and Hume wanted to point out that reason or rational thought may determine what is moral but offer no motivation to do it. Something further, a feeling, is required to impel one to action.
Initially I thought that Baron Cohen was offering a similar bifurcated structure but now I’m not so sure. I thought the cognitive/affective distinction served the same purpose to distinguish what and then compel response. But ultimately Baron Cohen is not talking about morality. He’s concerned with the psychology of empathy itself, offering a distinction that Smith & Hume didn’t have and stopping short of trying to tie it into a broader moral context (although, true to TEDx form, he does make some sweeping generalizations at the end).
Cognitive empathy on Baron Cohen’s account seems to cover both the external recognition of the other’s suffering as well as the use of imagination to ‘know’ the other’s internal state as well. In this it accords with the Smith/Humean account. However for Smith/Hume, imagining the other’s internal state automatically generates those same feelings (or a best approximation) in the observer. Having the capacity to empathize means generating the appropriate emotional response. Baron Cohen is saying that one can have recognition of suffering, know that one should be having a certain emotion in response and yet not feel that at all.
For Baron Cohen, there is a second movement in the empathetic response – the affective – which is the having of the empathetic emotion. At one level we can simply see this as bringing modern psychology and neuroscience to a venerated philosophical tradition and reconcile it with the Smith/Humean account. But I think it’s a bit more disruptive than that.
First, for Smith and Hume, to have empathy and reason is to have all you need for moral behavior. Empathy is what gives you a basis for recognition of suffering and the motivation to act and combined with reason helps you to identify appropriate response. Empathy is by nature affective. For Baron Cohen, empathy has a strictly rational component – cognitive empathy – and an affective component that are distinct.
Baron Cohen presumably has some neuroscientific justification for this (I haven’t read all of his published works or watched all his talks but I’m assuming it’s out there) and needs it for his analysis of autism (affective but not cognitive) and psychopathy (cognitive but not affective). When I look at in light of Moral Sentiment a la Smith and Hume, I see the distinction as offering them a way out of the knowledge of virtue is virtue trap in which Plato and Aristotle are stuck.
For Plato and Aristotle, knowledge of virtue (or the good) means doing virtue. Both think that anyone who does wrong is simply ignorant of what is right. It’s a defect or reason or knowledge. It’s a problematic part of their ethical theories that Smith and Hume seem to be committed to as well. The only way that Smith/Hume can say that someone acts immorally is either through a complete lack of empathy or a defect of reason.
The cognitive/affective distinction allows us to commit to a Moral Sentiment theory of morality while maintaining that someone who does wrong can be both in possession of knowledge and reason. You can know what’s right and still not do it. This helps accord to our intuitions about morality (lots of people do things they know are wrong) and works better when accounting for immoral behaviors in group dynamics (where conflicting feelings can override judgment). Additionally, Baron Cohen points out that there is evidence that empathetic response falls on a bell curve and is developmental, impacted by things such as neglect in early childhood, learned obedience to authority, indoctrination into ideology and so on. This allows us to maintain that morality via empathy is both teachable and correctable via behaviors as well as simply through reason.
What Baron Cohen’s distinction doesn’t do is explain what would impel one to act morally as opposed to just feel empathetic and it allows one to walk down the path of removing responsibility for immoral actions in those who ‘lack’ affective empathy. Those concerns are valid on almost all psychological/neurobiological accounts of morality though and shouldn’t be considered decisive.
I strongly believe with Aristotle that virtue is learned, I side with Smith and Hume that it relies on empathy and I experience compassion as a practice a la Buddhism. There is a way in which I see a cognitive/affective distinction allowing me to bind these three together somehow in a way I have not yet fully realized. Watch Baron Cohen’s talk and let me know what you think.