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  • Writer's pictureCrone

The colour of care

I am trying, with little success, to work out why I think that feelings matter intrinsically rather than just instrumentally.

Ben-the-supervisor suggested that I read Paul Bloom's Against Empathy. I've heard Bloom talk about it on many occasions and now I have started to read it. His view is that empathy, defined as 'feeling what another feels' leads us to biased, parochial, irrational and ineffectual action. We empathise with 'people like us', not with them; we focus resources on one pretty child, rather than the starving villagers; we stroke kittens and eat chickens and so on. He is not against 'cognitive empathy', which he defines as rationally simulating or understanding what another feels. This, though, is amoral - it can be used by the nurse or the torturer. Nor is he against compassion, which means caring about the suffering of others (which you don't have to feel). He also accepts that emotions motivate action - but he suggests that cold reason can too, aligned with the 'right' beliefs.

What's kind of weird is thinking where the right beliefs come from.

So, it's wrong to torture children. That is a right belief. Why is it wrong to torture children? Because it hurts them and scares them and traumatises them. It's wrong because of the feelings that arise from doing it.

Say that you had no idea at all of what pain or fear or trauma felt like. Could you conceive of them as bad? They are bad because they feel bad. In a universe of no feelings - where no one had any feelings except the child being tortured - no one would know it was bad. It would not be bad for them and how could they know it was bad for the child? A legislator could say, it is bad to torture that child, don't do it. And they could stop because they have been told to stop. But is that in any sense at all 'moral'? Its effect is moral - in our universe, because to knowingly inflict suffering is bad... but... I don't know... it seems that a belief that is founded on nothing beyond a diktat cannot be enough...

Say you were in a world where all the others had no feelings at all. They said, 'we do not know what bad is like, but we have been told that there are some things we should do and not do for you because, apparently, they matter to you in some way that we don't understand, so we will do and not do those things. To be honest, we don't understand mattering either. Nothing matters to us. You don't matter at all, but we kind of get that this mattering thing has an impact on you, we don't know how, and so...' But why would they? Because they respect you? Why would respect matter? Because they'd been told....

Somewhere something has to matter. That's what feelings are for. Alerts about what matters (to us). In my view, empathy is about opening oneself up to what matters to others. Not just as rules, but as something that thereby matters to us. Empathy is about increasing the range of the mattering map. It is about the salience of experience to others. It is about acting for others because it matters. The balance may be largely cognitive, but the acceptance that the other matters is more than belief, it is a feeling.

I think.

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