We are kind because of empathy
We are kind (to the extent we are) because we possess the capacity for empathy.
This is a simple answer. But it’s an answer that explains how kindness feels on an emotional level, that doesn’t repaint kindness as selfishness in disguise, and that doesn’t set hard limits on our kindness, but instead points the way to a dramatic expansion. However, it’s not an answer that everyone agrees on.
Empathy is a superpower. Being empathetic is a bit like being telepathic, but rather than walking around overhearing other people’s internal dialogue, you automatically take on a shadow of their experiential state. We don’t even need to control it; it just happens.
Empathy is the explanation of human kindness that best explains true kindness—kindness born from no ulterior motive—and it explains the way kindness feels. And, happily, it’s an explanation that points the way to an expansion of our kindness.
You are kind thanks to empathy. You are not kinder only because your empathy is regularly limited. To make you kinder, we’ll have to overcome those limits.
In fact, it’s not just humans. We share this capacity with many of our closely related kin in the animal kingdom. When a rat sees another rat stuck in a trap, she’s willing to miss out on a chunk of chocolate to rescue her friend. A dog can’t hear another dog crying without wanting to offer some physical comfort. And a rhesus monkey will forgo food and starve for several days if she must inflict an electric shock on another rhesus monkey to get at that food.
We share empathy with many of our mammalian cousins and some birds because it’s a product of evolution. Empathy is a near-universal feature of human nature because it evolved.
Evolution’s strategy for limiting our empathy in accordance with the demands of kin selection and reciprocal altruism was to make sure our empathy failed when it came to those we knew little about. Evolution could depend on our ancestors knowing nothing about those who weren’t members of their clan, and it used this as the workaround mechanism through which to direct their empathy. Empathizing only with those with whom they were familiar was probably an adequate mechanism for stopping our ancestors from empathizing with—and acting altruistically toward—those outside the group.
An empathy-limiting mechanism like this can be observed clearly in experiments on rats. A white rat raised among only white rats will fail to empathize with a black rat; she will readily save another white rat from a trap but won’t do the same for a black one. But a white rat raised only around black rats will fail to empathize with other white rats; she’ll save black rats from the trap but won’t do the same for white ones.
If you ran only the first experiment, it would appear as though rats empathize with those who look similar to them, but the truth is more of an evolutionary tinker than that. A rat’s empathy is limited to those that look like the rats she grew up with. A white rat raised around black and white rats empathizes with, and acts to rescue, rats of both colors.
Evolution’s aim may have been to limit rats’ empathy to only those who belonged to their kin group, but its mechanism for achieving that was to engineer empathy to fail when faced with unfamiliar-looking rats.
Our empathy fails when directed toward those we are unfamiliar with, those whose lives we know little about, and those we don’t recognize as sharing in our emotional world. But when we learn about people, those empathy limits can crumble. We could, in principle, empathize far more widely than we currently do.
Empathy has an off switch
Empathy has an off switch, and that off switch is ignorance. Certain mistakes we have a tendency to make stop us from empathizing; making these mistakes can result in us seeing someone in pain and feeling no part of that pain. Ignorance is empathy’s kryptonite; it leaves us insensitive to the suffering of those whose pain we would otherwise feel. Mistakes limit empathy in three main ways:
- They can leave us failing to recognize some individual (often by virtue of their group membership) as someone who feels in much the same way that we do.
- They can give us an inaccurate picture of how people are feeling, or how they could feel in the future on the basis of actions we’re considering.
- They can hide the connection between our actions and the feelings of others.
Empathy’s not unique in our emotional repertoire for having the potential to be influenced by our errors. Many of our feelings can be misdirected when our beliefs don’t accurately reflect the world as it is. A false belief could, for example, misdirect your anger. Imagine one day noticing a new dent in your car
Now imagine thinking your neighbor Kevin was responsible for the dent. You’d be angry with Kevin, no doubt. Not only did he dent your car, he didn’t have the courtesy to let you know and offer to pay to have the dent repaired. But then imagine that one day your other neighbor, Karen, confessed it was she who dented your car. Your anger toward Kevin in this situation was unfounded; it was misdirected. Your mistaken belief about the culprit in the denting left you with an anger toward Kevin you would otherwise not have felt.
This isn’t an unusual phenomenon. We often find that the way we felt about something or toward someone was not the way we would have felt if we’d known more. And when we come to know more, our feelings tend to adjust. Our misdirected emotions can get back on track when we stop making the relevant mistake.
When we bar someone from the circle of our empathetic concern, we do so on the basis of ignorance, on the basis of mistakes, and for indefensible reasons. Our empathy limits—the empathetic distinction between in and out—are predicated on our getting something straightforwardly wrong.
Why should we be kinder? Because we don’t like feeling or acting a specific way because of a mistake, and the only reason we aren’t already kinder is that we’re currently making some mistakes that have limited our empathy.
We just have to listen. Listen to the people our actions affect, listen to people whose lives are very different from ours, and listen to those we’ve been discouraged from listening to. If ignorance is empathy’s poison, listening is the only known antidote.
Listening exercises our empathy muscles and challenges the ignorance that can enfeeble them. We must talk about how we can become better listeners, because good listening is—to butcher Leonard Cohen’s words—where the empathy light gets in.
Listening is a hard-won ability; getting good at it takes practice, and it can require exhausting mental effort to listen well. Listening isn’t easy. Thinking some people are just better at it than others and nothing can be done about that is an excuse to avoid the hard work of good listening. The best listener wasn’t born that way; she continually works at that skill because she values it so highly.
Here are some tips for revolutionary, empathy-expanding listening.
1 There are a million ways to listen; find the one that suits you.
It can involve watching documentaries, movies, and YouTube videos; learning from podcasts, history shows, and the news; reading poetry, autobiographies, and essays; and chatting with people off-line and on social networks. By listening, I mean any conscious effort we make to learn about and internalize someone else’s experience. Find the type of listening that suits you, and listen in a way that gives you the greatest ability to take in what someone different from you is trying to tell you about their life and the lives of people like them.
2 Listen widely and directly; treat people as experts in themselves.
Listen to everyone. Listen to those you live alongside every day (whom your actions are mostly likely to immediately affect), and to those whose lives are most incomparable to your own; listen to people all over the world and listen to the people on the furthest margins of your own society.
3 Listen to those who are multiply oppressed.
A mistake made over and over again by those aiming to learn about a particular form of oppression has been listening exclusively to those who are privileged in every other regard. Those who want to learn about oppression on the basis of gender often set about doing so by listening to wealthy cis white women; this will teach only a fraction of what we need to know and will frequently misdirect our empathy.
4 Hear what’s being said, not what you expect or want to hear.
Whenever we listen to someone, we arrive with our own expectations of what it is they’ll say. If we’re not careful, these expectations can stop us from listening to what they actually say. We have a tendency to mentally rehash what someone tells us, morphing their account into something that resembles the image of their experience that we arrived at the conversation with.
5 Avoid defensiveness at all costs.
The most insurmountable barrier to listening is defensiveness. When someone teaches us something about their experience that forces us to recognize the role we’ve played—through action or inaction—in their suffering, we have a tendency to shut down.
6 So take your time and be present.
Take a breath. Take a beat. When you’re listening and you feel defensiveness welling up, sit with your thoughts for a moment. Don’t second-guess what your conversational partner is about to say; don’t cut them off by trying to finish their sentences. Give them time and attention. Try to notice when your mind is elsewhere, and work on returning to the present. Ask questions that check your understanding and demonstrate your concern for getting it right.
7 Give new ideas the space they need. Give yourself time and space to learn.
After all this listening, and all the repairs to your empathy plumbing that listening will bring about, you’re going to spot more suffering, and you’ll see just how much of it is avoidable. The larger part of suffering is human-made and is maintained as a result of shared, socially reinforced empathy-limiting mistakes.
But we still have to actually do the right thing. Empathy must become action. And the final barrier to that action is all the countervailing emotions and desires we have. Far from costing nothing, doing the right thing may well cost a lot. Once you’ve unleashed your empathy, you’ll at some point find yourself empathetically motivated to take actions that cost you friendships, opportunities, wealth, status, and safety.