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Getting a handle on the true nature of empathy

As understood by humans.

From From “Rat and Ant Rescues ‘Don’t Show Empathy’” (Science Daily, August 12, 2012), we learn,

Studies of how rats and ants rescue other members of their species do not prove that animals other than humans have empathy, according to a team led by Oxford University scientists.

‘To prove empathy any experiment must show an individual understands another’s feelings and is driven by the psychological goal of improving another’s wellbeing. Our view is that, so far, there is no proof of this outside of humans.’

The team highlights how interpretations of pro-social behavior vary — rat rescues, for instance, are regarded as being motivated by empathy whilst ant rescues are not — even though the observed behavior (pulling on the legs or tail of the trapped individual, followed by biting at the restraint) are very similar.

In order to prove empathy any experiment would need to show that individuals changed their response if the circumstances changed; for instance moving away from a trapped individual if that reduced the trapped animal’s distress. It would also need to disentangle empathy from acting simply to stop the trapped animal’s stress signals — something that can be psychologically selfish and does not need to involve empathy.

These distinctions are important.

First, human empathy is bound up with reason, not just emotion. Indeed, a widely warned-against fault in helping professionals is this: Becoming so emotionally involved that one becomes a part of the problem, rather than a part of any solution.

So for a state of mind to be counted as empathy in humans, reason is essential. Reason determines, by observation, what demonstrably helps the person or animal that is suffering. The reasonable person does that, not just whatever comes first to mind or relieves one’s own anxiety most quickly. (Those methods may happen to work accidentally – but they don’t tell us much.)

It would be most interesting if rats meet that standard.

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8 Responses to Getting a handle on the true nature of empathy

  1. News,

    pardon, to where do questions go coming from reading of “ID Defined”,”Glossary”,”Frequently Raised but Weak arguments Against ID”?
    thank you for reponse.

    sergio

  2. sergiomendes, you could ask your question here and we will try to respond.

  3. It sems to me that they have made a fundamental error in their initial hypothesis, namely, that empathy can be gauged on the basis of the superficial analytical intelligence.

    Even among human beings, there appears to be good reason to believe that our profoundest understanding resides at a subliminal level. The word is, ‘empathy’, not, ‘concerebration’.

    Trying to measure compassion seems to be a classic case of a failure to understand the limitations of empirical science. Even among animals.

  4. ‘First, human empathy is bound up with reason, not just emotion. Indeed, a widely warned-against fault in helping professionals is this: Becoming so emotionally involved that one becomes a part of the problem, rather than a part of any solution.’

    This is a non-sequitur. The subject matter studied was not a possible parallel with professionalism in the ‘caring professions’.

    Human empathy is not ‘bound up with reason’, qua the analytical intellect. The victim’s suffering should prompt an emotion, which would then prompt an emotional desire to rescue or palliate the victim’s suffering, and finally a ratiocinative response to achieve that end.

  5. Hi Axel: I suggest that, for one point, the emotional response is rooted in a cognitively loaded perception and judgement. Think about our fear in response to a car headed our way. KF

  6. Axel, reason is an essential part of human empathy. Reason is what enables the young female social worker to provide the right kind of support for the recent widower of eighty years of age. Or the celibate priest to counsel the religious teenager who has been forced by her supposedly Catholic parents to have an abortion.

    Emotion alone cannot do this, because we are emotionally moved by experiences we understand, not by those we don’t. Reason opens a door to responding sensitively to other people’s different lives.

  7. To me, News, you seem to be attibruting ‘added value’ to empathy, conflating it with the professionalism/effectiveness of a response to the condition or plight that elicits it.

    Indeed, it happens, does it not, that some individuals can feel so extremely empathetic towards the victim of some terrible crisis that they become hysterical in the face of it – or perhaps run around like a chicken with its head cut off, partly, no doubt, because they are acutely aware of how desperately unequipped they are to help. On the other hand, I suspect there could be a fair few, quite brilliant surgeons who are psychopaths.

    It’s a matter of language, I suppose. My version of ‘empathy’, would be instinctive, but quite possibly the person feeling it, would be unable to respond intellectually to any great purpose or effect.

    Fortunately, we don’t have an English Academy laying down what should be the received applications and meanings of words, so that was just my two penn’orth. I do see what you are driving at.

  8. Hi Kairos

    I believe so. That was what I meant by my reference to cognition on a subliminal level; if able to be described as analytical, it would be at a profoundly primal level, a reflex action, or very close to it; a negligible element of discursivenes, if any at all.

    I believe the minds and thought-processs of animals are even more arcane than ours, in that it is difficult for us to imagine that our omnipotent God would preside over the tiniest details of his creation (rather than base it all on laws, however dynamic – even though on the divine scale we are next to nothing – and we seem to mean an awful lot to Him!!

    I think my difference with News and the author is that they are viewing the word in a narrative, more characteristically-human sense, whereas I have been taking the word in its limited, disembodied, conceptual sense. Maybe they are right to do that.

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