Heidi Maibom, University of Cincinnati and University of the Basque Country
The argument for why empathy makes us less, not more, impartial, biased, or objective is simple once the groundwork has been laid. It proceeds in three steps. One: the way that each one of us thinks about the world is perspectival, in the sense of being from the human and the first-person point of view. Such a view is inevitably subjective, biased, and partial. Two: when we take another point of view, we thereby expand, not our human point of view, but the point of view of the person who acts. We come to see how another might be affected by what is happening, as the ground zero of experience, among other things. This is another subjective, biased, and partial point of view. Three: having two different subjective views on things gives us a less subjective view (biased, partial) than simply having one subjective view.
But, an objector might say, the concern people (such as Jesse Prinz and Paul Bloom) have is that if I empathize with Fred, who’s in need, I become more motivated by his need than by the need of the many other people in need. Your argument doesn’t respond to this. True. We need to add other considerations. If we are making important decisions about how to help as many people as possible, empathizing with one person over others won’t give us the result we want. It would also be unjustified. However, Prinz and Bloom are just wrong about the fact that empathizing with one person doesn’t help the many. Adam Galinsky and colleagues have shown that empathizing with (taking the perspective of) one type of person—an old person or a cheerleader, for instance—makes you more kindly disposed towards everybody of that type, e.g. all old people or cheerleaders. Moreover, my claim is not that empathy alone can or should constitute our moral judgments.
But what if two people are in conflict? Doesn’t empathizing with the one disadvantage the other? It probably will, and that is why, in the general run of things, we ought to empathize with both. We can then triangulate the various perspectives to come up with a fuller picture of the situation. This picture provides information about the situation both in terms of what matters to the individual stakeholders, but also information that is more characteristic of an observer stance.
Why not just take an observer stance on others? Isn’t that more objective? No. An observer perspective is just one perspective on another person, and one that is more distanced because not self-relevant in the way that an agent perspective is.
What about a point of view of an impartial spectator (pace Hume and Smith)? Isn’t that what we need for morality and isn’t that the kind of impartiality we want? First of all, an impartial spectator is someone who is in possession of knowledge of all the relevant facts. These include facts about our character, motivation, beliefs, etc. but represented in a disinterested way (to avoid bias). But I cannot see how, if we are not already in possession of knowledge of all the relevant facts (which, evidently, we are not, nor can we be) imagining that we are will help. Furthermore, part of the point of my argument so far is that a disinterested way of thinking about my thoughts, feelings, character, etc. leaves out important information, namely how those thoughts, feelings, and character traits appear from the inside. Moreover, considering the situation disinterestedly circumvents any true engagement with moral stakeholders, which is deeply problematic. It encourages thinking for rather than thinking with others.
Impartial Spectator enthusiasts have objected that the Impartial Spectator indeed considers information also from an agent perspective, but then goes on to consider all that information impartially. This is fine, as things go, but now it becomes unclear why we cannot use our own impartiality, part of which arises from having adopted many points of view. Why must we imagine things from this other perspective? It is important to consider that what I am mainly concerned with is impartiality in morals. When I talk about objectivity, I have in mind something very similar to impartiality, and when I think of being more objective, I think primarily in terms of being less subjective. Some people think that being fully or truly objective involves adopting a view from nowhere (cf. Thomas Nagel). My view commits me to the idea that there is no such view. But there are ways of being less subjective and biased, as I have outlined above. But since my view also seems to commit me to holding that the best we can do for objectivity in science is to collect as many views as possible and generalize over them, I need to say more about that. Soon…