[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.
“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.”
I agree with this to a certain point. I’ve read before that doctors and priests (or anyone required to listen to other people’s crises) are susceptible to something called “sin fatigue.” This simply means that after years and years of listening to other people’s issues they begin to “feel” less and less for those people. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced it before, but it can be very unnerving to hear a pair of doctors talk about your condition while you just sit there. This has happened to me. By no means am I saying they were callous or inhuman, but it really seemed as if I was a “thing” to them: an object for analysis instead of a subject to empathize with. I also read somewhere that doctor’s have less active “mirror neurons” after years of practice. All of this seems to imply that Baron Cohen is right in some ways. (oh, and as a disclaimer to anyone out there that is a doctor or knows a doctor personally: I am by no means an expert on this stuff. If you disagree with anything I’ve typed, there is a more than probable chance that you are right and I am wrong.)
With that said, I think, like all psychological matters, empathy is an immensely complex topic that will probably never be understood fully. I have a problem with the notion that empathy can fall on a bell-curve, because this implies stability from situation-to-situation. Based on my on own experience (and I feel more than qualified to analyze my own experience in regard to what psychologists say), empathy is not a thing that is stable from situation-to-situation. There are some situations that almost never produce an empathetic response in me, but then sometimes do. There are some situations that almost always do, but then sometime don’t.. Sometimes I find myself actively resenting a person that just the day before I had empathy for. If I’m tired I feel less empathy. If I’m pissed off I feel less empathy. Basically, I’m trying to say that empathy is a spontaneous process, and I question whether or not I would always feel the same way about a phenomenon while sitting in a lab as I would while walking down the street.
Paul Paolini says
To me it seems there’s error and confusion involved in trying to link morality and empathy. On a very general level, it’s questionable whether morality is a person-to-person ethical relation at all; this is reflected in the fact that “He treated me immorally” sounds less correct than “He treated me unethically.” My view on this is that ‘morality’ and ‘justice’ capture specific types of ethical relations on the basis of the kinds of parties involved in the relation: while all such relations are ethical in a general sense, the word ‘ethical’ is used for the peer-to-peer (part-to-part, whole-to-whole) relation, ‘morality’ is used for the individual-to-society (part-to-whole) relation and ‘justice’ is used for the society-to-individual (whole-to-part) relation. These meanings seem to be more or less firmly encoded in our language whether we understand it consciously or not. Note that no one would promise to treat their significant other justly unless they were a megalomaniac.
If the above view is right, morality has specifically to do not with the treatment of others (that’s ethics proper) but with the relation between e.g. how a person lives and the relevant norms or ideals of their society. To illustrate, a stripper may be judged immoral (i.e. a violator of relevant norms) though he or she has done nothing unethical to anyone.
So it seems that what we’re really talking about regarding “morality and empathy” is ethics-proper (peer-to-peer relations) and empathy. My view is that to regard these two notions as closely related is to misunderstand ethics. I suspect that part of the problem is the ambiguity of the term ‘ethical behavior’. It has a legitimate meaning wherein it means behavior that is ethically correct, as in “We appreciate your ethical behavior toward us,” and it has a dubious meaning wherein it means a type of behavior, as in, “We’re studying the ethical behavior of mobsters.” The reason this second sense is dubious is that ethics is not a type of behavior a la sexual behavior but a rational metric for judging any and all behavior; an attempt to define what “ethical behavior” is supposed to be as a type of behavior will show the folly of the idea. Generally, ethics is not a behavioral or psychological phenomenon, though it seems we’re (again) living in an age in which we’re trying to psychologize it. Hume and Smith, apparently, were psychologizers. (As a point of interest note that not too long later Frege was complaining about the problem that psychologism was for mathematics.)
So, using ‘ethical behavior’ to mean ethically correct behavior, and not being confused by the other sense, the disconnect between ethics and empathy is evident in the fact that empathy is neither necessary nor sufficient for ethical behavior. That it’s not sufficient is evident in the fact that a person can fully empathize with another yet make wrong ethical decisions on the basis of that empathy; sadism, etc., might be a further case but that might get into definitional issues regarding ’empathy’. That it’s not necessary (which may be the more important part) is obvious in that our ethical concerns regarding our treatment of others generally have, and should have, little to do with how we feel about the relevant others. To illustrate, if one borrows $10 from another, what does the ethical demand to repay the $10 have to do with empathy? Not a lot. One repays because it is right (on rational grounds) not because an emotional connection exists. Note that if one repaid the $10 only because of an empathetic connection with the lender, that repayer could not be a very ethical person in general. Generally, a person who decides whether or not to be ethical on the basis of emotional connections is unlikely to be an ethical person.
Regarding motivation to be ethical, personally I think this has to do with a desire to have integrity, i.e. truth, consistency and justification in one’s thoughts, actions, and social relations, which is something more general than ethics. We might say that a desire to be ethical follows from a desire for more general virtues, such as a desire to be rational and to have a true view of the world.
Wayne Schroeder says
Seth–thanks for your thoughts and link to Cohen–I think that the misunderstandings and confusions are part of a lack of a complete theory of the empathic connection to morality rather than a problem with the inclusion of empathy in the concept of morality. I’ll search this out.
Paul–nice summary of the cognitive position.
Paul Paolini says
Wayne – Thanks, but the cognitive position on what?
Wayne Schroeder says
On Morality which you have refined as ethics.
Wayne Schroeder says
“Unlike traditional views, which posit an innate Theory of Mind module to account for social cognition (Leslie, 1987; Baron-Cohen 1995), an increasing number of studies in the field (Rizzolatti and Craighero 2004; Rizzolatti et alia 1996; Gallese et alia 1996), suggests that the understanding of other minds is primarily based on the motor expertise underlying our capacity to act. Such embodied understanding is not only different in nature from the modalities of mindreading as traditionally understood, but also strongly indicates that the meaning of intentional behavior can be grasped only if we know bodily, experientially or both what it is like to be in a mental state.” From: Embodied Cognition, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Also see current discussions on the NFS Philosophy of Mind regarding Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind, which is in accord with Rizzolatti.
Edgar Lores says
1. It seems the overview goes like this: (a) we perceive an Other in a situation of suffering; (b) as a result we experience (cognitive) empathy; (c) as a further result we may be motivated, through (affective) empathy, to take ethical (or moral) action.
1.1 Smith/Hume see (b) and (c) as a single unit of response. Cohen sees (c) as a separate and distinct unit.
2. I question the assumptions of the model.
2.1 In the first step, in the perception of suffering, I would posit that perception is clouded by conditioning. Two persons looking at the Other who is “suffering” may not have similar responses of empathy. Both observers may have empathy, that is they are able to put themselves in the shoes of the sufferer, but Observer B may have no sympathy for the sufferer.
2.2 The reason for that may be that Observer B thinks that the suffering is “deserved”. He perceives the suffering and he recognizes the fact of suffering. Therefore he has empathy. But his sense of morality may preclude him from having a sentiment of sympathy.
2.3 Accordingly, in the second step, while cognitive empathy occurs, the empathy does not translate into sympathy because of the intrusion of Observer B’s sense of justice, which arises from his sense of morality. Cognition is an action of the mind, and sympathy an action or an affect of the heart.
2.4 For Observer A, who experiences both cognitive empathy and sympathy, the third step of doing something for the Other may or may not be a viable action. I think Cohen is right. The quantum of affective empathy may not be sufficient to move Observer A into action. And there could be many reasons for that insufficiency.
3. I think the notion that ethics (or morality) is either a rational or non-rational construct is a false dichotomy. I believe that ethics (or morality) is both a rational and non-rational construct.
4. Before I go further, let me make a distinction between ethics and morality that is different from that suggested by Mr Paul Paolini, who suggests that ethics is peer-to-peer (part-to-part or whole-to-whole) while morality is individual to society (part-to-whole).
4.1 My resistance to Mr Paolini’s model is that there are several constructs, not just society, that man interacts with, and these constructs interact with man but also with each other. I will name the seven major constructs in a man’s life but the hierarchy of constructs is dynamic, that is there could be more or less constructs for a specific individual. The constructs starting from Self are: Self, Family, Community, Church, State, World, and God.
4.2 The distinction I make between ethics and morality is derived from Gore Vidal. Morality is sectarian, based on religious dogma, while ethics is secular, based on logic and experience. This means that ethics is universal while morality is not and is a subset of ethics. This is in keeping with the Dalai Lama’s call that man should develop a secular code of ethics. Henceforth, I will use the term “ethics” and only use “morality” to suggest the subset of “Judeo-Christian morality”.
4.3 Currently there are laws, rules and protocols – written and uncwritten – that govern interaction between and among the named constructs. I will say that all of these form the basis of ethics. Law is codified ethics. Not all laws are ethical because some do not pertain to behaviour and, for those that do, a lot are derived from morality. Like the ban against same-sex marriage.
5. Going back to item 3. I believe that man is born with an innate sense of ethics. This is the little voice of conscience. I base this belief on the following:
5.1 Some animals with a high degree of consciousness exhibit empathy, in particular, dolphins and elephants.
5.2 Some men are born without any conscience. We call them sociopaths.
5.3 A man, who has a certain degree of individuation (in the Jungian sense), will follow the dictates of his consciences beyond the dictates of the law of the land and/or the law of religion.
5.4 Apart from the voice of conscience, there are reasons of the heart. Sometimes we follow these reasons of the heart despite the protestations of the reasons of the mind.
5.5 There are a growing number of men who do not belong to any religion and who, per my definition, have no morality. And yet, these men behave ethically, more often than not, at a higher plane than those who have religion.
6. Finally, I believe that man’s innate sense of ethics may be sharpened by reason, but may also be damaged by conditioning, in particular religion.
Maybe I’m too late to join in on this, but empathy is my area of research so I thought I’d stick my two cents in.
My problem with Baron-Cohen’s account as stated in the video is the distinction drawn between cognitive and affective empathy. At the risk of not-even-name-dropping, there *is* such a distinction often used in the literature, but not in Baron-Cohen’s sense.
‘Cognitive’ empathy is usually taken to refer not to the contents of an empathising, but rather to the method by which it has come about. That is, ‘cognitive’ empathy is usually taken to involve a deliberate imaginative process (often misleadingly labelled as ‘putting oneself in another’s shoes’), at which point one will have an affective response similar to that of the target of your empathy. So, Mark is sad, Seth imagines ‘being in Mark’s shoes’, Mark’s shoes are a sad place to be, so Seth gets sad.
‘Affective’ empathy (often called ‘automatic’ empathy), is usually meant to refer to the process whereby one takes on the same affective response of your target without any deliberate effort. So, Mark gets kicked in the balls, Seth sees and winces involuntarily. That’s Seth automatically empathising with Mark.
So what we have here is a distinction between two different ways, cognitive and affective, to get to the same thing, empathy. Baron-Cohen, on the other hand, sees two distinct states which together combine to make empathy, or are different forms of empathy, or something like that (it’s not really clear).
The trouble with the distinction that Baron-Cohen draws is that ‘cognitive empathy’ on his account seems indistinguishable from any other method of mind-reading. Once you take away the requirement that ‘cognitive empathy’ involves imaginatively taking on the characteristics of another person, all you’re left with is forming beliefs about what another person is thinking or feeling. It sounds at different points like he wants to say that cognitive empathy involves putting oneself in another’s shoes and imagining having their thoughts and feelings but that that doesn’t involve imagining feeling what the other is feeling. That can’t be right because to imagine having someone else’s feelings (in the right sense) involves having those feelings, or something like them (can you imagine the experience of being sad without feeling some sadness? Or put the point a bit differently, could you imagine the experience of being sad without having ever been sad?). Things get a bit complicated at this point, but the gist is that there are several ways that Seth could imagine having Mark’s feelings; he could propositionally imagine that he feels as Mark does, imagine seeing himself feeling the way Mark does, he could imagine *being* Mark and feeling as Mark does, or he could imagine still being Seth but also feeling as Mark does instead of how Seth actually does. Of those imaginative activities, the only ones that could plausibly be described as empathic involve Seth imagining the *experience* of having the feeling that Mark does; and imagining the experience of being in pain involves imagining being in pain, which is the kind of imagining Baron Cohen wants to reserve for ‘affective’ empathy and cut out of ‘cognitive’ empathy.
Why can cognitive empathy not involve, say, just propositionally imagining that I feel as Mark does? Well, it just seems like then we’re not naming anything special. I don’t think anyone doubts that a psychopath could believe that Mark was sad and to then propositionally imagine also being sad (it’s certainly never been suggested that they can’t). That’s a very undemanding imaginative task. The thing that psychopaths seem unable to do is that special kind of imagining where they imagine the experience of being another person. This may account for the fact that they exhibit moral deficiencies – it’s a safe bet the moral (i.e. motivational) significance of empathy is that it allows you to understand in a special way that other people experience things as you do. It is not just another way of coming to believe that, say, Mark is sad, but rather a way of coming to believe that Mark feels ‘like this’.
Another issue is the way Baron-Cohen seems to gloss over the distinction between sympathy and empathy at various points – in his discussion of autism, for instance, the fact that autistic children get upset when other people are upset doesn’t show that they still have a kind of empathy. If they are just upset because something confusing is happening, there is no empathy going on. Even if they are upset *because* another person is upset that doesn’t mean they are empathising, they could merely be sympathising (the difference being, roughly, that the mental state of a sympathiser need not be identical to that of their target, whereas with empathy it does need to be). All Baron-Cohen has (possibly) shown is that autistic people have some capacity for emotion directed at other people.
A selection of rambling thoughts, I hope some were useful.
Tl;dr – Without the affective component he wants to reserve for ‘affective’ empathy, Baron Cohen’s ‘cognitive’ empathy isn’t really empathy at all. We fail, unfortunately, to get the distinction necessary to tie up the sentimentalist ethics in the way you hoped.
Wayne Schroeder says
“The meaning of intentional behavior can be grasped only if we know bodily, experientially or both what it is like to be in a mental state.”
I think cognitive empathy fits into the category of oxymoron, like constructive criticism, since significant entities are being conflated (cognition, affect), which translates for me into the difference between sympathy (not genuine/mind-reading of affect) versus empathy (genuine/heart-reading of affect).
Awesome response and hope you continue to register your expertise here.
Thanks Wayne. I’ll continue to butt in wherever I feel able.
Interestingly I take pretty much precisely the opposite view to yours – empathy proper is in my view irreducibly cognitive.
The word ‘know’ in your short quote nicely captures the reasons why I think so. While automatic mirroring systems (of the kind Rizzolatti et al. are interested in) certainly do provide us with the bodily *experience* of what it is like to be in a (mental) state, they don’t seem to offer anything to connect that experience with the experience of another person. In order to ‘know’ what it is like, such that we can say that we know what it is like to be another person, it seems to me that we have to cognise our experience somehow.
I’m not sure that I grasp your version of the sympathy/empathy distinction. I generally think of sympathy as (very roughly) feeling-for someone and empathy as feeling-with (or feeling-as) them. So if Mark is sad and I feel pity, I am sympathising, but if Mark is feeling jealous and I feel his jealousy, I am empathising. You seemed to be suggesting something different though…
Wayne Schroeder says
Initial responses to your assertion “empathy proper is in my view irreducibly cognitive.”
Regarding automatic mirroring systems, “they don’t seem to offer anything to connect that experience with the experience of another person,” seems disconnected from the phenomenon of mirrioring itself: For an example of mirroring , ‘if I yawn and you see me, you yawn as well’, that provides as direct an experience of another person as needed.
Where you say,”cognitive empathy’ involves imaginatively taking on the characteristics of another person,” I like the inclusion of “imaginative” here because it gets beyond the mere cognitive as Kant indicated, and is further elaborated by another of your statements:
“imagine having someone else’s feelings (in the right sense) involves having those feelings, or something like them (can you imagine the experience of being sad without feeling some sadness? Or put the point a bit differently, could you imagine the experience of being sad without having ever been sad?). ”
“Without the affective component he wants to reserve for ‘affective’ empathy, Baron Cohen’s ‘cognitive’ empathy isn’t really empathy at all.” So the affective component of empathy is significant, which I usually differentiate from cognitive.
So as a cognitivist, it seems like you have integrated the affective as well?