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Open for Debate

How Empathy Inhibits Trust

6 November 2017

In my previous blog post, “How empathy promotes trust,” I argued that empathy can furnish an important source of trust in other people’s testimony (testifying simply being the act of inviting people to take your word for it that something or other is true). I also mentioned that this positive relation of support is not the whole story about empathy’s relation to trust– there is reason to think that in some situations, reliance on empathy will inhibit the extension of important and warranted testimonial trust. Today, I will take up this “dark side” of empathy, and explain how reliance on empathy can have this inhibiting function.

First, a brief review of what I had to say about the positive relation between empathy and trust in testimony. Empathy is the imaginative act of considering the other’s situation as though one were occupying the other’s position. For me to trust your testimony, I must believe both that you are honest and that you are competent (able to distinguish the offensive from the funny, the threatening from the innocuous, and so forth). I cannot both empathize with your outlook and think that your perspective is totally unaccountable. If I am able to imaginatively see things as you do (you say, honestly, that your friend’s remark was offensive, and I succeed in imaginatively working my way into registering the remark as offensive), then I am not in a position to claim that you are totally incompetent when it comes to picking out what is offensive. Therefore, I must attribute some competence to you, and that attribution provides some basis for my trust in your testimony. (for the full argument to this effect, see my previous post).

Empathy’s powerful ability to provide support for the trust it can sustain derives in large measure from the fact that when we “get” some outlook empathetically, we are strongly inclined to regard it as correct. Conversely, when we attempt to empathize, and find we cannot, we are liable to be similarly strongly inclined to think that there can’t be anything to what the testifier tells us. Claims that we can’t empathize often have a judgmental dimension. Think about what is conveyed when we say: “I will never understand why he would want that,” or “You say it’s worthwhile, but I just can’t see it.” Or take this example from a Chicago Tribune Op-Ed: “So I will never get this sexting craze. I can’t empathize with a teenage girl seeking acceptance by sharing photos of her breasts.”[1] The literal claim being made is just that the author is not able to make sense of teenage girls’ sexting habits. But the heavy implication, here, is that there is no sense to be gotten.

There is a defeasible but non-accidental connection between our trying and failing to empathize with another’s attitude and our disapproving of it. A truly epistemically humble person might well think: whether or not I can imaginatively get myself to a version of the other’s attitude has no bearing on whether her attitude is correct, because I myself am (for instance) emotionally and/or imaginatively stunted in some respects. Still, this kind of humility is hard to maintain. It is more difficult than deference to testimony about evaluative facts in cases where one has not even attempted to adopt the other’s perspective. We may be relatively content, sometimes, to skip the empathizing and let others put in the work when it comes to determining whether something is beautiful, or just, or unsettling. However, once we do try to look at things from the other’s point of view, marshaling our emotional sensitivities and applying them to the task of figuring out whether the other is right that something is offensive, or generous, or insufferable, the import of the choice to trust shifts.

Suppose we fail to “get” the other’s way of understanding things, despite our best efforts. In that case, trusting the other’s testimony in the face of our failure means accepting that one is flawed in (at least) one of two ways. On the one hand, one might opt to trust in cases like these because one accepts that one’s perspective-taking capacities are in some respects deficient. Accepting that condition is no easy thing, because we heavily depend upon this imaginative ability for our everyday understanding of other people. It is a crucial item in our mental tool kit. Far from being an optional extravagance, the ability to take on other perspectives is crucial to our identity as social beings who experience our fellows not as mysterious “black boxes,” but rather as creatures with sensible, if not totally rational, preferences and projects.

The concession in the face of empathetic effort and failure that one’s imaginative abilities are in some respects inadequate may be paired or mixed with another sort of admission that is perhaps still more difficult. In my first blog post, I discussed the strength of our inclination to go along with our own emotional representations of the world. The flip side of that inclination, which makes empathy such a powerful enabler of trust, is that it is extremely difficult to accept that one’s emotional sensitivities are misaligned. Most of us, most of the time, are practically bound to think of ourselves as tolerably well-equipped to see whether a death is worth mourning, whether a habit is irritating, whether a joke is funny…and also whether an encounter is demeaning or threatening. Accepting that our emotional attunement to the world is dull or distorted (even if just with respect to a relatively narrow set of properties or circumstances) is a difficult prospect for reasons that largely parallel those in play in the case of acknowledging imaginative deficiencies. Accepting that one is not a fully reliable detector of what is cruel or obnoxious, for instance, is a very difficult proposition. The vast majority of people, I think, would agree that their good sense of what is needlessly hurtful is important to them as moral beings who try to navigate life without being vicious to others.

Because these two kinds of admission are so difficult for us to make, it is very hard to trust another’s word that some behavior is cruel, obnoxious, or threatening when one finds that one cannot empathize with the other’s outlook despite one’s best efforts. Trust in such cases will require serious humility. Rather paradoxically, the more confidence we have in the accuracy of our own emotional perceptions, the more our succeeding in empathizing yields for trust,  but greater confidence in this accuracy will also tend to diminish our ability to trust in others’ testimony when we find ourselves unable to empathize with them.

[1] Albom (2014).

Featured Image: “When Patterns Break” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by  lyzadanger