From a moral standpoint, it makes the world worse.
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8 April 2016
Oh my! One of the most powerful defenses for the value of literary reading has always been its ability to promote the development of empathy.
And then, while searching for something worthy of scooping, I came across the title of this short video. "Empathy Doesn't Make You a Good Person," and published in The Atlantic, one of my "Go To" sources for thought provoking pieces?
How could this be?
My first thought was a recollection of one of my personal guide post quotes when confronting what appears to seriously contradict one of my most strongly held beliefs.
"It's a rare person who wants to hear what he doesn't want to hear." ~ Dick Cavett
Could there be an "aha" moment; an "I never thought about it that way before" realization to be discovered in the video?
By the way, this concept that I could be wrong or at least responsible for modifying an existing belief was at the heart of my favorite requirement for a well developed argumentative essay; the required concession paragraph.
So, I watched the video.
My attention was caught in the argument that empathy has a serious downside if it is actually deeply felt and then quickly abandoned once the passion subsides. I realized I could not argue with some of the evidence provided.
I'll leave you to weigh the evidence provided in defense of the thesis that empathy can blind us by distorting our perception of what is important, what altruistic actions really make a difference, and the penetrating question of the shortfall of what is referred to as the reward of "warm glow altruism," which I had to consider might be more self-serving (self-delusional) than helpful in addressing issues for which we feel an intense, but often fleeting empathetic rush.
OKAY, I had to admit that there are issues associated with empathy's value IN SOME CASES. We've seen the student suddenly sensing the college application pressure to have some,community service to pad one's application. Yet that community service pressure for some often is minimal or "fly-by" and motivated more by self-serving purposes than by actual empathy for others.
We've seen catastrophe generate intense but short-lived interest in the well-being of those existing in impoverished conditions or in the conditions behind our increasingly NOT rare encounters with gun violence, or even in the actual importance of honesty in public discourse as we "ready our opinions" for pending elections?
How though could I still find myself concluding that the video's conclusions do not fairly address the value of empathy?
I came to think of the argument as being similar to a frequent discussion of optimism in many, many class discussions in my satire class.
As there is a difference between fleeting empathy and deeper ongoing empathetic efforts to "really" make a difference, there is a similar difference between what I referred to as "Panglossian optimism" and what I referred to "Martin Luther King optimism."
Pangloss from Voltaire's Candide, represents a rose-colored lens-type optimism believing that everything is for the best. This led Pangloss to defend what "appears" to be bad by providing extremely ludicrous explanations of why the bad is actually good and therefore requires nothing of us.
Martin Luther King on the other hand stared what is bad directly in the eye and worked incessantly to make what is bad better. His optimism was essentially, "Yes there is bad, therefore I believe something can and must be done."
The connection I see? Let us admit that a Panglossian-like low level of empathy can lead to a certain self-delusion and bias that might actually cause a distraction away from recognizing that more must be done than "fly-by" acts of kindness.
And, let us also remember that developing empathy at deeper and more realistic levels, requires us to accept a responsibility to make the cultivation of of empathy a serious Martin Luther King-like driving force within our moral compasses.
And, life-long literary reading, just might be the force that continually reminds us to care in ways that make a real difference.
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