The limitations of empathy as a model of morality are more than just philosophical ones. The capacity for empathy is not only a finite resource, it is a zero sum one.
We know empathy is finite because of Dunbar’s Number, the limitation we have as humans to maintain social networks.
Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.[
The exact number, be it 150 or 10, of your empathy range is irrelevant. As the illustration above shows, there are various boundaries/sizes of different social types. The point is, you only have so many slots that can be filled with real people that you actually care about enough to see the world through their eyes, and shuffling folks in and out of slots doesn’t change this finite capacity.
Neither does the trick of some religions of slotting in God or all other humans into an empathy slot – the abstractions are easy to imagine but almost impossible to realize for most folks over a lifetime. Holy men and women can pull it off, but they are outliers for sure.
I think the best way to think about empathy is as another physical sense, the bonding one. And just like you can’t see over the horizon or hear all things at all times, you can’t suddenly will yourself into having a super-empathetic sense.
Plus, we have another conundrum, and maybe the bigger one: even if we can somehow juggle our way around Dunbar’s spectrum and feel something for everyone, the people we are having empathy with have no requirement to give us empathy in return.
We can understand the terrorists all we want, but if they don’t understand us then it’s a pointless undertaking.
I grew up in the 70s, when there was a belief that without empathy for everyone we couldn’t end racism or prevent a final world war. But racism has not gone anywhere, and war has just morphed to remain profitable.
So let’s quit making each other feel guilty that we aren’t universal empathy machines. Let’s find a new way forward.
My suggestion is the Singleton Pattern, which is a recognition of the special status of humans in the universe as distinct and special. It’s not about recognizing empathy, it’s about recognizing value. Together, small teams of humans can make massive improvements to our reality. We are all Worthy.
When you walk through a forest, you can feel deep affection for the natural world and want to preserve it, but that doesn’t mean you have empathy for every tree. It’s a different feeling, and that’s the feeling we need for society.
Instead of using guilt and shame to force folks to have empathy for all, we should find ways to discuss our goals for society. And that entails putting some numbers to things.
What crime rate are you willing to tolerate? What rate of abortions? What rate of poverty? What is the minimum cost college should be? Homelessness %? Tax rate?
The metrics of the world, and building a data driven society, do not require empathy. They just require understanding statistics and percentiles, and believing that caring about data is more maintainable than your emotional connection to other individuals. High school math, and caring about your grade.
I don’t need a leader telling me how to think or feel. I’ve got that covered, thanks. What I need is leaders who care about demonstrable, quantifiable results of policy choices.
Dunbar boundary Image from this article.