Paul Bloom, the noted Yale psychologist, wrote, in a 2013 New Yorker article and again in a 2014 Boston Review forum, “against empathy.” We are urged to feel empathy in order to do good for others, but empathy is a poor guide to altruism. Empathy is “parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate,” Bloom writes. We empathize much more with people who resemble us in background, looks, or character (that is, people who seem moral and deserving just like we assume we are) than with people who are different, odd, or potentially at fault. Thus, the baby fallen in the well in the next town deserves moving heaven and earth to save her, while tens of thousands of starving, deformed refugees thousands of miles away — not so much. How can empathy’s discrimination be morally justified, Bloom asks. Isn’t there a better guide?
My small addition to the conversation is simply to note this oddity: Bloom and the Boston Review commentators did not refer to the obvious guide, at least for Americans: organized religion. (In the New Yorker, Bloom refers only to “religious ideologies that promote cruelty” and the BR essays make passing nods to a vague Buddhism.) No one acknowledges that Americans’ historically most important guide to moral decisions, the Bible, might avoid the empathy paradox – or at least it might if Americans had not watered down its guidance with empathy.
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Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged altruism, Bible, empathy |
Debates over women’s rights in America have often polarized between those arguing that women need special recognition of how they differ from men – their role as mothers, smaller physiques, sexual vulnerability, and greater sensitivity, for example – and those arguing that women just need to be treated just like men. The story of how women’s rights expanded historically seems, crudely sketched, as first an expansion of special treatment and then an affirmation of similar treatment. The trajectory for women in the paid labor force, for instance, can be crudely described as a period of legislation providing women with special hours and conditions followed by an effort to guarantee equal treatment.
A new article by historian Paul Freedman in the Journal of Social History recounts one small part of the women’s rights story that seems to fit this pattern: women in restaurants. Today, a group of women dining without men is hardly worthy of notice; a woman dining alone might stir only about as much curiosity as a man dining alone. It was once quite different.
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Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged gender, restaurants, women |
Much of the meta-coverage of the Ferguson, Missouri, tragedy has stressed the apparent importance of social media in focusing attention and fanning the flames. The NPR program On the Media had a story on August 14, 2014 which, in part, spoke in wonderment about how much Ferguson was a social media event and that because of social media people know so much more about the events and are therefore mobilized more than ever before. Maybe.
What is striking in historical perspective is that, however vast the media apparatus may be, the disturbances have not spread. Forty or so years ago, before the computer, internet, and smartphone, the fury in African-American neighborhoods spread from city to city quite rapidly. But not now. How come? (This post is partly a revisit to an earlier one on social media and protest.)
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged civil disorders, Ferguson, media |
The sense of empowerment that is part of American individualism benefits Americans. People who feel empowered, able to shape the world, and responsible for themselves tend, social psychological research shows, to act more forcefully and succeed more often than people who feel themselves to be at the mercy of others or of larger forces. Confidence is often a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. But there is another side to such an empowered world view: self-blame.
To be sure, a healthy level of egoism – also part of the individualistic world-view – protects Americans from blaming themselves too much. Americans tend to take credit for their successes while sidestepping fault when things go wrong more often than other peoples do; Americans tend to be especially “self-enhancing” (see, e.g., here, here, and here). Nonetheless, the sense of personal responsibility can lead many Americans who face repeated difficulties to beat up on themselves.
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Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged blame, individualism, unemployment |
About six months ago, I had a column in the Boston Review by the title above. Many heated comments ensued, especially once a couple of libertarian blogs pointed their readers to the essay. I respond here briefly to two connected lines of critique that I think are substantial and important. (I set aside the comments that I am an idiot or that I shouldn’t address the topic until I had read the full libertarian canon.)
I had argued that libertarianism made historically and anthropologically unrealistic assumptions by placing the separate self at the center of its world view. One valid critique is that I was thereby rejecting the historic advances of individual liberty, waxing nostalgic for coercive communities. The other critique is that, by looking only backward to the way societies have existed, I had blindly foreclosed new possibilities. I reply below.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged government, individualism, libertarianism |
The flood of new devices, apps, and gadgets raises the recurrent worry about what these things, individually or in ensembles, are “doing” to us, how they are “impacting” us. Technology critic and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, for instance, argues that “technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.” In a similar vein, the legal scholar Tim Wu, who focuses on media and technology, warns that the Internet is psychologically overloading us.
This metaphor of impact obscures the evolution of each personal technology as it enters widespread use, misconstruing the implications for our personal lives and psyches. It implies that a technology hits, pushes, smashes us. Meteors impact the earth; missiles impact a target; bats impact a baseball. But in what meaningful sense does an electric light or a cell phone, literally or metaphorically, impact us?
We better understand the role of technologies if we think about how we use them and how that use changes over time….. [Read the rest of this post on the Boston Review's BR Blog here.]
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged internet, norms, technology |