Friday, 24 March 2017

Caring Schmering


Empathy. It’s overrated. Gets you into all sorts of trouble. And yet not having any also seems to get you into trouble. You can’t win.
Take, as exhibit one, this photo:

Woman walking, I like to call it. It was taken by a chap called Jamie Lorriman when a mentally unstable chap with a grudge decided he’d drive a car over Westminster Bridge and then stab a policeman. You know, that crime that happened on Wednesday that absolutely no newspaper or broadcaster is turning into a huge deal that can be appropriated by bigots to further their own agenda. The photo was subsequently used by a bigoted fool (whose name really isn’t worth knowing, but oddly enough turns out he’s a Trump supporter, go figure) as evidence that she didn’t care about what was going on (‘look at her, look at her, just casually walking past a dying man without any empathy at all!’) and that therefore Muslims = bad and Christians = good. The photographer came out in support of her today to say ‘well of course she cared, she was in shock, look at all these other photos I took which show her to be distraught,’ etc, bla.

Whatever. The point is why do we care (ah ha, I see what you did there) whether she cares or not? I know, empathy is what makes us human, how would we cope if no one cared about anyone else, society would collapse, Google would become sentient, our bank accounts would marry our cars and we’d all go to Hell in a handbasket, fine. But. Really?
Altruism, selflessness, the principle of having concern for others. Lauded, considered a virtue, is the basis of religions and society. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Altruism could be loyalty, the concern for special relationships, friends, family and so on and in that form it’s admittedly useful from an evolutionary standpoint because (a) it seems to ensure that parents are nice to their children, and (b) is reciprocal, in that the nicer you are the nicer people generally are to you. Which brings me to the fact that there is some debate about whether people can actually be altruistic. To be truly selfless, to truly care, there has to be nothing in it for you. There’s a cost to you, but there’s no benefit. But there is a theory called psychological egoism, which holds that humans are always – always – motivated by self-interest. The desire to experience pleasure and to avoid pain. Being nice makes us feel good, it makes it more likely that others will be nice to us.
To take the concept of altruism and turn it into a stick with which to beat people with strikes me as being the antithesis of, er, empathy. On the one hand it’s saying you’re a good person because you care, and on the other hand it’s demonstrating your complete lack of care by attacking someone else’s reactions (and in this particular case it’s decrying a lack of tolerance by being intolerant, but no one ever said bigots were logical I guess).
Just…let’s understand that you can be a good person while not necessarily giving a shit about everything. Some of us find it a bit harder to do.