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My last two posts for Applied Sentience are up:
Within, I discuss some thoughts I’ve had recently on the problems with empathy, and how we need another layer of moral feeling on top of empathy — for which I borrow the term “heroic responsibility” from Eliezer Yudkowsky — if we want to do good in difficult situations.
The posts total about 2500 words, but this post provides a brief summary.
Empathy and Heroism: Quick Notes
1. Empathy drives lots of behavior most people would consider “moral”.
2. But our innate empathy tends to cover only certain people: People who are similar to us, people we like (cute babies rather than hardened ex-cons), and people we can see or imagine (one refugee featured on television rather than a hundred faceless victims of disease).
I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.
3. Sometimes, we can expand our empathy to reach more people, but there’s only weak experimental evidence on how to do this, and even participants in empathy-enhancing experiments show lots of moral bias (favoring the well-being of one person over multiple people).
4. We need to find a feeling or mindset that covers the weaknesses of empathy — that drives us to help people, even if we have trouble empathizing or even sympathizing with them. (When strangers on the other side of the planet are in trouble, we should still feel an urge to help them; same goes for people we don’t like, if they don’t deserve to be suffering.)
5. That something could be a feeling of “heroism” or “heroic responsibility”, which drives us to do good things — even if we have to give something up — simply because they are good.
Zell Kravinsky, who gave away a fortune [and a kidney] because others needed them more, is one example of a moral hero. Wesley Autrey, who risked his life to save a stranger from getting hit by a train, is another.
“I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”
6. “Heroic responsibility” means actively watching out for the people around you, and not placing your absolute trust in other people to help when trouble arises.
That doesn’t mean you’re a cynical loner who thinks other people are useless. It just means you think of it as your “job” to do something helpful when someone else needs help and the people around them aren’t helping. (You wouldn’t push a CPR provider out of the way to do your own chest compressions, but if you saw someone collapse on the sidewalk, you’d call 911 even if no one else seemed to notice.)
“I think the idea is basically ignoring the realistic probabilities as to whether or not you are a hero, and acting like one regardless.”
7. Heroic responsibility is a weird concept, so I’ll add some more examples:
- Learning to perform CPR or taking a bystander training course is a way to practice being heroically responsible.
- Stopping an out-of-control teenager from harassing elderly people is a heroic action, even if (especially if) all those people are total strangers.
- So is giving to a charity that can use your money efficiently to help people in especially difficult circumstances. You can be heroically responsible from a distance.
- It’s even heroic to see that someone might need help crossing the street and asking them if you can help. “Heroic” doesn’t have to mean a big, difficult thing. It just means you’re doing your best to make the world better for someone else.
Note: “Doing your best” includes actions like “being aware of your surroundings” and “learning from times when you didn’t help as much as you could have”.
8. People who often do heroic things seem to have certain traits in common: They have skills that make it easier to help others, and they don’t get embarrassed easily. I have some thoughts on how a person can learn to be more heroic, which you can read at the end of the second post. But for now I have a sample size of n = 1, and I can’t really comment fairly on whether I’ve become more heroic in the last year or so.
How About You?
Do you have any thoughts on my distinction between empathy and heroism? Have you seen or taken any heroic actions lately? Tell me about it in the comments!