Moral Heroism Pt 1: Empathy’s Faults & Heroism to the Rescue

I’ve written before about the importance of teaching people to see things through the eyes of other people. One commentator pointed out that a quicker way to say “seeing things through the eyes of other people” is “empathy”.

I’m far from the first person to talk about the wonders of empathy. Psychologists write books about it. The Pope gives speeches about it. Barack Obama often claims that we suffer from an “empathy deficit” more pressing than even the national debt.

The Shortcomings of Empathy

Still, empathy isn’t the only feeling we need to make moral choices. According to Paul Bloom, our natural empathy tends to fall short in several ways:

Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data.

We don’t live in a world of isolated choices. When we empathize with someone, we place a higher priority on helping them than on helping other people. And since the world is full of people who need help, our empathy can lead us to ignore some people while placing an undue emphasis on others. Bloom uses the example of “Baby Jessica”, a cute little girl who fell into a well and received nearly a million dollars from thousands of donors before she was (quickly and inexpensively) rescued. Those same dollars could have saved hundreds of lives if given to certain international charities, but the “particular individual” named Jessica was much easier to empathize with than those faceless people abroad.

We see the same bias appear even when people aren’t involved. You don’t need a study to know that people seem to empathize far more with cute mammals than with other, less interesting life forms. The giant panda gets to be the mascot of the World Wildlife Fund; meanwhile, Googling “bumblebee charity” pulls up a single, smallish nonprofit working to save the bees (they need it). Guess which of these animals is essential to the functioning of modern agriculture and most ecosystems?

Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Not as cute, but much more important! Check out their site!

Sometimes, empathy isn’t just biased or illogical – it’s anti-logical. Multiple studies by Tehila Kogut and Ilana Ritov show that we’ll pay more money to save the life of one child than to save the lives of eight children. Daniel Kahneman and Shane Frederick summarize research showing that participants will offer the same amount of money to save two thousand birds as to save two hundred thousand birds. We simply can’t empathize very well with large numbers of living creatures. And that’s a bad sign, if we hope to make empathy the central pillar of our moral decision-making.  How can we override these apparent limits of natural empathy?

One Solution: Be a Hero

I think of empathy as one of the two most important “moral feelings” — feelings which, between them, help me resolve most of my moral dilemmas.

The other feeling isn’t nearly as well-studied as empathy, and psychologists never seem to write books about it. On the other hand, comic books talk about it all the time: Heroism.

Wikipedia defines a hero as a person who “displays courage or self-sacrifice” for the sake of a “greater good”. My definition is a bit different:

Someone who acts heroically acts to help other people (at some cost to themselves), even if they don’t feel empathy toward those people — just because helping is the right thing to do.

It is undoubtedly a good thing to shovel your elderly neighbor’s driveway, or donate to fund a friend’s chemotherapy. And an action isn’t un-heroic just because we feel empathy as we perform it. But heroes go beyond empathy, sacrificing themselves for the sake of strangers or even faceless “statistical victims”. It’s not easy to feel empathy for the hypothetical future victims of lung disease caused by air pollution. When a lawmaker risks their chance of re-election to push through a law that will reduce pollution, bypassing this lack of natural empathy to focus on the numbers, I think they’ve done something heroic

Empathy connects us to people like ourselves, people nearby, people we know well, and people whose plight we can see and hear. Heroism could be seen as the feeling or motivation which connects us to people in general, whether they are similar or different, ugly or beautiful, close or far away. And heroism cares about numbers; when more people are in danger, heroes recognize that more is at stake, and they work even harder to solve the problem. Thus conceived, heroism seems like the perfect companion to empathy, as useful for tackling large, faraway issues as empathy is for dealing with small, close-up issues.

The Heroic Archetype: Helping strangers, just because

I find it easiest to consider the virtues of heroism by thinking about some of the most famous heroes in the comic-book universe. Superheroes tend to be very different from the ordinary humans they protect. Superman and Martian Manhunter are aliens. Batman and Iron Man are billionaires. Thor is a god, and Wonder Woman is a demigod. Nevertheless, they all risk their lives to help people with whom they have very little in common.


Zell Kravinsky – a real life hero

We can also look to the real world for examples of the empathy/heroism dynamic.  Mother Theresa seems to exemplify empathy: She worked tirelessly on behalf of thousands of people she encountered face-to-face, and her most famous quote (probably apocryphal) is all about the power of empathy to inspire good works. Zell Kravinsky, on the other hand, donated his entire fortune (and one of his kidneys) to help people who he often never even saw — just because they needed the money (and kidney) more than Kravinsky did himself. And unlike Bill Gates, who gave away billions but also kept a few billion, Kravinsky wound up living on something close to a normal income. I consider his actions just as moral as Mother Theresa’s, but I think that those actions were motivated by a very different outlook.

Tellingly, Kravinsky compared his kidney donation to the act of someone who jumps into icy water to save a child, at the slight risk of drowning themselves. There are many forms of heroic action, some of which seem to transcend empathy – and I’ll be talking about some of them in the next post.

Aaron Gertler (Yale University)

Aaron GertlerAaron is a member of the class of 2015 at Yale University. After he graduates, he hopes to live his life in a way that makes the lives of other people significantly better, unless he gets distracted by his dream of becoming a famous DJ/novelist/crime-fighter. His interests include electronic music, applied psychology, instrumental rationality, and effective altruism. If his beliefs are inaccurate, you should tell him so as directly as possible. You can follow him on Twitter @aarongertler, and he also writes for his own blog.

2 responses to “Moral Heroism Pt 1: Empathy’s Faults & Heroism to the Rescue

  1. Pingback: Empathy and Heroism - Alpha Gamma·

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