Empathy and Heroic Responsibility

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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.

–Paul Bloom, “Against Empathy”

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.”

—Wesley Autrey

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!


5 thoughts on “Empathy and Heroic Responsibility

  1. To give a somewhat questionable answer to the question, “What emotions can motivate us to act morally”:

    In my experience, many people are driven by trying to feel superior to others. Thus, the more that you can frame morality as “an action that proves my superiority to others,” the more likely you are to act morally. I’d guess that this is the most helpful attitude one could hold if one wishes to make the world a better place.

    Incidentally, superiority is also a helpful attitude for counteracting the bystander effect. If you think that everyone else around you is an idiot, you’re more likely to assume heroic responsibility. This is one of the reasons why HJPEV comes off as so obnoxious, but ultimately why he’s so effective as well.

    Of course, for a virtue ethicist like me, this isn’t something that looks very much like moral action at all. But for a consequentialist, it should work just fine.

    • Yes, there are lots of different mental habits that can lead to moral action! I actually wrote my last paper for my last class at Yale on that. It was a terrible paper, but some of the habits/emotions/mental states I thought of were:

      *Pride or superiority: “I’m so wonderful and moral! Too bad everyone else is ordinary.”

      *Horror or “lone ranger” emotions: “Oh, gosh! Everyone else is killing babies! Am I the only sane person left? I’ve got to help, even if no one else will!”

      *Rules and regulations: “I think that my holy book is telling me that I should do as much good as possible with my Earthly life, and this is how I try to follow those instructions.”

      *Solidarity and togetherness: “We humans have got to stick together! I may not know you or how you feel, but I get happy feelings when humanity seems to be flourishing, and that leads me to stamp out un-flourishing whenever I find it!”

      *Scrupulosity and guilt: “People are suffering somewhere, and I’m not helping as much as I could be! I’m going to hold myself to a very high moral standard because I can’t imagine any other way to live my life!”

      Some of these are more likely to bring about the formation of a good soul than others, certainly. I’d bet that, for every possible motivation one could imagine, there’s someone out there doing moral things for that reason.

  2. Pingback: Humans, Utilitarians, etc. | Feelings About Feelings

  3. Is empathy by your definition a strict subset of heroism?
    I had some trouble understanding your post because to me empathy doesn’t have the types of limitations that seem to necessitate the creation of the ‘heroism’ category.

    • Jessica — In my weird personal use of those terms, neither is a subset of the other. Empathy roughly equates to “understanding a person’s situation and acting to help them in part because you are driven by that understanding”, where heroism is more “helping someone according to your moral principles, even though you haven’t had the chance to think carefully through their situation”. Empathy tends to be based on personal connection, heroism on some principle that would drive someone to help no matter who the person was. Empathy tends to develop over time and involve repeated interactions, while heroism tends to be swift and single-use (these hard and fast rules do not capture all situations; it’s easy to think of single acts of empathy or repeated patterns of heroism).

      I think I used the term “heroic responsibility” when you wrote a post with a collection of links people could use to safeguard themselves against online threats. My wording there was even looser, since you may have written the post with friends or allies in mind and may have been feeling empathy as you wrote it. But in general, I think of spreading information as more of a “heroic” // “impersonal” thing, since you’re not sure who is going to see it and benefit from it.

      The boundary there is still fuzzy, of course: Someone may post useful messages or do medical research or write life-affirming stories for reasons that are empathetic or heroic or both. Some of the most touching humanistic literature I’ve read was written by people with explicitly heroic // impersonal motivations; some of the greatest scientists in history have been deeply empathetic people whose lives were defined by personal relationships.

      And yeah, it’s an open question as to whether empathy has these kinds of limits for everyone. We all define the word differently.

      But with “heroic responsibility”, I was trying to capture the feeling I have when I, say, watch a CPR training video. As I push on the dummy’s chest, I’m not putting myself in any kind of empathetic position in relation to someone whose life I might save; I’m thinking something like “if I pay attention and get this right, something good might come of it, and I’m determined to increase the chance of the good thing happening”. I imagine that certain idealists/revolutionaries throughout history have thought similarly: “I know I’m helping the future, even if victory might take centuries, and even if I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel from here”.

      That was long… but did it clear things up at all?

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