Deriving Altruism Without the Sensation of Visceral Empathy
By Quinn Dougherty
Note from publisher: This article is unlike basically all of what the emoanarchy blog has published before but we nonetheless think it’s interesting to expand our conceptions of topics such as hypo-empathy, hyper-empathy, theory of mind, and the extent to which they are fixed or malleable phenomena. CW: If you are more tilted towards the hyper-empath spectrum of existence parts of this article may be challenging in their description of triggering content such as death.
I know what it’s like. You’re standing around at a funeral, everyone’s crying, you pretend to know why. There’s a dead cat on the sidewalk, your friend cries out to it, wants to nurse it back to life, you wisely point out that there’s nothing we could have done, and that we may as well keep walking.
We form a spectrum in our diverse experiences of empathy. Hyper-empaths feel a lot of visceral empathy which I’ll call involuntary empathy, they feel it in their gut. However, this experience is also known as affective empathy. These are emotional signals that they can’t opt-out of. The other side of the spectrum is the hypo-empaths, less diplomatically referred to as sociopaths. This essay is for us.
Sociopaths get a bad reputation. Sure, we have feelings, but only selfish ones. With no guilt or shame to inhibit us, can we be trusted to live in a society, to be held responsible for our obligations to others? We gamify and exploit, rendering everything transactional because we’re the only characters in the story. Nothing matters, but we enjoy rewards, so we play to win. All of the pure, unbroken, saintly people are horrified. “How can I trust you not to harm me if you don’t think of me as another person just like you,” they wonder. They know they would never harm someone because they Feel Emotions. Normal people have no trouble recognizing that others are Valid, unlike you, a defective monster.
And the some hyper-empaths know as well as you do that it’s not that simple. There is in fact a clear tradeoff where each side of the coin has its strengths and weaknesses.
Involuntary empathy, while a useful heuristic, is incredibly unreliable and readily encourages invalid conclusions or actions. Scope insensitivity (the inability to distinguish between your indignation at a million people suffering and at a billion people suffering) and the tendency of the insufficiently cosmopolitan to value their neighbors more than ten times as many people halfway across the world are but two failure modes that are exacerbated by treating the visceral sensation of empathy as a source of morality or ethics.
Moreover, I will make the case for voluntary empathy, the empathy that hypo-empaths (and hyper-empaths alike) can cognitively opt into without experiencing an emotional sensation. This form of empathy is also known as cognitive empathy.
An intuition: take as an edge case you’re the judge of the debate “kicking puppies is good”. Does the hyper-empath reader require that the opposition play an audiotape of a whimpering puppy, or would that be kinda pandering? A hypo-empath, one who has sipped from the stew of altruism, would find that cheap theatricalities undermine the opposition’s argument because a hypo-empath is as free to develop philosophical commitments as the hyper-empath reader.
We’re not terribly skeptical of gravity: monkeys and toddler humans share an intuition that what goes up tends to come down. We largely trust that we will fall, so we don’t bother jumping. Some information appears to us like this (knowledge encoded in either an ancestral or formative way), while other information requires proof. Empathy is largely the same. It’s easy to feel instinctively that your kin’s lives matter, but in order to be convinced that strangers’ lives matter, you have to willingly entertain an abstraction. A common route around this for hyper-empaths is to experience an involuntary mirroring of a stranger’s suffering. Involuntary empathy can be seen as a vulnerability to be exploited or manipulated particularly by ‘non-altruistic’ hypo-empaths.
People brainstorm ways to bring a dead cat back to life because something in their body takes over. If you didn’t learn gravity as a baby (or if your ancestors didn’t learn it), would you be stuck jumping off of rooftops and being surprised that you fall? Or would you compensate for it by thinking things through, trying some cheap experiments, and just admitting to yourself that you have a preference for not falling? Just because your whole being isn’t crying out at another’s suffering doesn’t mean you can’t decide that their suffering matters.
People often form their morals after absorbing emotional responses as priors. Involuntary empathy is just a source of “moral priors”, but the lesson of bayes theorem is that your priors matter less than your rate of convergence to the truth (even though affective empathy can also strive towards emotional rationality). In the case of hypo-empaths, they just find priors somewhere else (perhaps borrow/steal them from a friend who undergoes involuntary empathy), plug in new evidence and chains of reasoning into the “moral bayes theorem” (which I will not define) and crunch the numbers.
Recall the facts-values problem: descriptive statements about how the world is and normative statements about how the world ought to be are not on the same “axis”, so we can’t derive the former from the latter just as we can’t justify the latter wtih the former. In other words, the ought does not emerge naturally from the is. I.e., no matter what I show you empirically about the benefits of kicking puppies, no matter how convinced you are by my argument, you always retain the license to reject puppy kicking. If you take orthogonality literally, you are not asked to compromise your obligation to believe true things if you want to decide in favor of this rejection. You are entitled to moral theories that take a stand against puppy kicking regardless of the empirical case made for its benefits.
You are not bound by whatever happens on the gut axis either, the axis of involuntary empathy. Voluntary and involuntary empathy were always orthogonal. Wiggle and nudge on one axis all you like, you won’t affect the other axis unless you go out of your way to wiggle and nudge in that direction.
This may be a pivotal moment in the altruistic hypo-empath’s intellectual and emotional freedom: If they wake up one day to find that malaria isn’t solved yet, and they check their empathometer and find it reading zero on the involuntary axis, they get to crank that voluntary sucker up to whatever they have the bandwidth for, implying they’ll donate whatever they can afford to fund bednets or take interest in contributing to solving related problems as able.
In the traditional Harry Potter canon, the four houses are associated with respective virtues. Slytherins are marked by their ambition and cunning, Ravenclaws by their curiosity and creativity, Gryffindors by their bravery and chivalry, and Hufflepuffs by their loyalty and hard work. Robby Bensinger usefully extracted from these four houses a kind of four houses of altruism
- Slytherfuzzies: how it feels to save the world by improving yourself, mastering your own will, and achieving your personal goals
- Ravenfuzzies: how it feels to save the world as an intellectually stimulating puzzle
- Gryffinfuzzies: how it feels to save the world from within a narrative, (e)utopian vision, or any sort of moral quest
- Hufflefuzzies: the primary kind of fuzzies sourced from involuntary empathy
It is my belief that strong altruists especially of the slytherfuzzy and ravenfuzzy variants can be forged from the ranks of hypo-empaths. It’s an exceedingly simple proposition: saving the world may be the coolest questline you can find, being a good person might be the most fun you can have.