February 1, 2016 by Liberty
I want to apologize in advance for making this sound like a rant. I can assure you, I have every intention of making it painfully rantish. I don’t have much time for writing articles these days and in this moment I feel nothing but the desire to release months of frustration onto the page.
Never let a person tell you that you lack empathy.
I was having a debate with a person the other day and they brought up a scientific study on libertarians and empathy. (Yes. They were making ad hominem attacks on libertarianism because they apparently had no better way to try and compete with the logic involved in our specific discussion. Life is tough for a liberal. I tend to sympathize and listen to ad hominems because otherwise they’d have no points to argue.) The study he brought up apparently concluded that libertarians feel less empathy than conservatives or liberals.
I may have mentioned this idea in the past but I think it’s worth reiterating. When someone brings up a scientific study in a debate, always assume they’re pretty much right. Unless someone has explicitly lied intentionally in the past, it’s safe to assume their basing their claim on something. By asking clarifying questions you can usually distinguish whether they actually have a clue what they’re talking about. Even assuming any study they bring out is true, you can usually prove it completely irrelevant anyway because, let’s face it, when you’re arguing a libertarian point people are just dying to distract themselves from the actual subject.
Anyway, when the guy brought up the study on libertarians lacking empathy I recognized that idea. I’ve heard it before. To some extent, I understood what it was saying. Not only that, but instinctively I wanted to accept it as fact. Part of me accepted the idea that libertarians felt less empathy in favor of logic.
There is a problem with that idea though. The problem, of course, being… it’s bullshit.
What Is Empathy – It’s Not What They Have
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the way a person feels.
People are taught that empathy is that feeling in their gut. You know… when you see a person skateboarding over a railing and then losing their board and crushing their testicles on the bar, and then you cringe, protect your nuts, and make a suffering sound. That’s what empathy is shown as. While your nuts may not be in any immediate danger, you share those feelings of pain and/or fear.
For those without testicles, you might remember the miserable feeling you got when you saw a friend suffering. You suddenly start feeling as though you’re going through the same suffering they are.
Empathy is thought to be a gut emotional feeling. It’s rarely ever discussed beyond that. Just look at the actual definition of the word. It’s the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. Understanding is not just an emotional reaction, it’s an intellectual one.
Why Are Libertarians Less Empathetic
When people conclude that libertarians are less empathetic than non-libertarians, they’re virtually always basing their assertion on the gut version of empathy. They might ask a question like, if you see a person begging for money on the street, would you drop them some change? They then make the assumption that the empathetic person would do it.
Of course, looking at some raggedly dressed and dirty homeless person can make anyone get a gut feeling wanting to help. I feel it. I just want to buy them new clothes, reunite them with loved ones, and get them jobs but gut feelings are not all that empathy requires.
Now imagine an alcoholic comes up to you begging for you to buy him some alcohol. There he is looking sad and worthy of your sympathy. Is it empathetic to buy that man a beer? Is it empathetic to give a drug addict another hit? Is it empathetic give an addict their addiction? Is it empathetic to give a person that made poor decisions the same thing as they would have if they had made smart decisions?
Empathy can make you feel guilty too. When that drug addict is willing to do anything for you for another hit and you’re saying no, your gut is going to be screaming for you to give in. It may satisfy your gut level empathy to give into these pleas but fully formed empathy cannot. Empathy includes the understanding that what people want to have is not always what they need. Sometimes, what people want is counterproductive for what they need.
When I see a homeless person, I still feel that gut desire to help but I have the empathy to actually consider the consequences of my actions. Sure, whether I drop a dime or not doesn’t matter in any considerable way. Handing over any sizable amount of money could easily be going to the support of a drug addictions, scam artists, or, hell, irresponsible financial decisions which have dramatic consequences in of themselves. My money could keep that man on the streets. My money could convince that man that he needs to beg to survive. My money is encouraging so many horrible things that I couldn’t sleep at night knowing I encouraged it. Sure, seeing appreciation in the moment would be pleasurable for me, it’s not about my pleasure.
I may feel pissy when a homeless person derides me for politely refusing to hand over any money. I may feel bad watching someone looking absolutely miserable but empathy is not empathy without the logical understanding that alleviating certain suffering in myself could cause immensely more suffering for someone else.
Empathy isn’t doing what makes you feel better. It’s understanding and feeling what another person feels. Empathy in the guy getting his nuts crushed on a railing is nothing to be proud of. It’s a gut instinctual feeling that virtually everyone alive today has.
A real empathy requires an understanding that alleviating that gut instinct isn’t caring for others. It’s selfish. Empathy for others, sometimes, involves accepting those pains as a necessary part of making the world a better place.
Do you want to know how to live more free today without waiting for another election to disappoint you? (Don’t worry… it will.) That’s what this blog is all about. Be sure to follow along and check out the archives for all the details.