“You need to defend empathy? And you are getting support to do it? In Sweden??” This was at a bar uptown last summer, before I left for a research leave in Gothenburg, Sweden. I was shooting pool with a guy I knew, and I was explaining why I’d be out of the country for a few months. I had recently been awarded a subgrant from the John Templeton Foundation, under the rubric of a general project on “The Philosophy & Science of Self-Control.” My proposed project was on “Empathic Self-Control,” and I was going to use the money to research, write, and talk about the project with members of the prestigious Gothenburg Responsibility Project, a community of scholars working on moral responsibility on the western edge of Sweden. They had invited me to be in residence during the fall of 2016.
As a philosopher working on the nature of moral responsibility, I have long been interested in empathy. I think having a robust capacity for empathy is essential to being a moral agent, someone who is able to act on moral norms and be morally responsible for what she does. But empathy has recently been getting a bad rap. Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale, has a new book out called Against Empathy, and he and some other scholars have been saying for years that empathy leads us astray, favors our own at the expense of those in genuine need, and so is morally bankrupt. In a series of articles, I have been defending empathy against these attacks, despite my pool foe’s incredulity that it would need defending.
My research leave was, however, for diving even deeper into the empathy pool, in order to explore whether empathy provides us with a distinctive type of control and self-control. And, I found, it does. One thing that empathy can do is enable us to come to see certain facts about others as morally salient, in a way that, say, facts about the size of their bathroom windows aren’t. When we take up someone else’s perspective, seeing her values as she does, when we then return to our own perspectives, these facts become salient for how we deliberate what we ought to do, as long as our empathic mechanisms are functioning properly. This is a kind of moral control, and it’s necessary for moral responsibility.
But we can also take up the perspectives of our future selves in just the same way, and when we do so, facts about those future selves can strike us as prudentially salient, in a way that can cause us to constrain the interests of our current selves. This is a kind of self-control over time that has been little noticed before. Recognizing the role empathy plays in both control and self-control thus provides additional defensive tools against those critical of empathy.
Talking these matters over with my Gothenburg colleagues was incredibly helpful. But it was nevertheless ironic to be exploring the nature of self-control in a town and country full of indulgences. Whether I resisted them is none of your business, and anyway it is a wholly independent matter from whether I found out some of the conditions for doing so.