When is empathy relevant?

Your interesting post made me think, and I have some comments. You will decide if they have any relevance for you... :-) I think that if you put the question : why do we de-humanize, then the reverse question should be also examined: why do we humanize ? The question as it is asked in the post suggests that empathy is a modular capacity that would be basically “on” and could be switched “off” or disturbed in certain contexts. According to this, human beings would be basically empathic. I am not sure that it has this irrepressible automatic functioning like the understanding of speech or detecting movement. Empathy could be seen as an ability used when necessary rather than a modular automatic capacity. My intuition is that in ecologic context, people are empathic when needed: when they are forced to be, when it is rewarding, when it is in line with their goal. People would go in the direction of the maximization of the reward and minimization of the effort. So I would suggest the massive use of relevance theory. Cognitive resources will be allocated to empathy if it is relevant. To hunt an animal in the wild, you really have to use empathy to predict its movements. But it would be counterproductive to be empathic with the cattle you are breeding. So the ecologic factors could be thought of as “relevancy-of-empathy” factors. As anthropologist, I cannot help trying some examples. It may be relevant to be empathic with the people who are close to. But not all the time. Let\'s take an adolescent girl, Jenny, fighting with her mother. Jenny wants to join her friends in the disco, and her mother would not let her go. They are very close kin, they live together, and still, Jenny doesn\'t show empathy neither for her mother\'s point of view (that disco is dangerous when one is only 12 years old), nor for her emotional state. She just considers her mother as an obstacle, makes her best to get through, as this is the best way for her, in her opinion, to get to her goal. She will use her empathic capacity to find out how she could threaten her mother (“I will not do my homework any more if you don\'t let me go!”), but not to perceive that her mother is sad and anxious due to her behavior. If I am just ignoring the wishes of another person, it may go swiftly. If I have to kill the other person, I probably have to make an effort, to make fake trials for example. (I guess this supports Nicolas Baumard\'s findings.) The two kinds of non-empathy seem quite different, and should maybe be conceptually separated. It may even be useful to split the concept of empathy into a whole range of parts. Even with the best intention and cognitive effort, one can difficultly be totally empathic to the overall situation of another person. (And the anthropologist, who tries hard on the field, may become so empathic with everybody that he/she becomes unable to communicate normally or to have an opinion, so to say to be socially functional. Then one drives back the empathy to a “normal level”, and that helps to be integrated.) There may be a whole range of kinds of empathy. Here are some probably ad hoc guesses. One could perceive - the fact that the other is alive (and does not want to be killed) - the physical state of the person - the emotional state - the intentions and desires These different levels could have a different cognitive treatment. Some thoughts about the empathy in rural areas. I have to confess I know better rural Indonesia than rural Europe, as I did fieldwork there. Thinking back, I was astonished by cases of striking lack of empathy between neighbors, even between people claiming common ancestors. A case for instance in Bali when a woman was helping her neighbor in her business of preparing ritual decoration for retail. She was paid close to nothing, though she was spending hours and hours there nearly daily. I cannot give all the details, but the situation was unjust. Though, it didn\'t seem to bother the “business-woman”. I guess it would have been counterproductive for her to have empathy for the working neighbor: she would probably have felt obliged to pay her more. It is certainly very interesting to question the implications of empathy in an ecologic environment. If in Bali I know of a friend that she cannot afford to buy a raincoat, and the rainy season is approaching (rain is really heavy there, nothing to do with Oxford rain), then I will feel the obligation of buying her a raincoat. As my financial resources are not infinite, I cannot have a big number of people with whom I empathize to that level. I just cannot afford it.

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