Abstraction and Empathy

A prominent libertarian blogger, who goes by the nom de plume “Jane Galt,” wrote recently about the notion of “redistribution of wealth:”

While I am much more sanguine than most libertarians about redistributing material wealth from the richer to the poorer … I cannot believe in this sort of redistribution—“cutting down the tall poppies,” as I believe the Australians call it. Perhaps a little thought experiment will explain why.

Beauty, like wealth, is relative—it benefits its possessor only insofar as they are lovelier than the women, or handsomer than the men, around them. Presumably, if we disfigured all the good-looking actors in Hollywood, and the models in New York, and … well, heck, let’s slash the faces of everyone who’s better looking than I am. I am younger and slimmer than the average American, and have good teeth, long thick hair, and all the other accoutrements of an upper–middle–class upbringing. So we know that this would bring happiness to far more Americans than it would distress. We don’t have to turn them into Quasimodo—just make them no more good looking than I am. Just think how happy America could be made if Cindy Crawford had saddlebags and a squint.

But wait! Americans could be made even happier if Cindy Crawford and her ilk had acid poured on their faces to turn them into a twisted mass of scars, and were inflated a hundred pounds or so apiece through gavage. Physical pain could be alleviated by judicious application of modern painkilling technology, providing a huge psychic boost to everyone else at only a mild psychic cost … to the pulchritudinous elites.

Can you imagine a more blindly privileged position than that the value of wealth is solely relative, that the wealthy are happy only because there are those with less and that the poor are unhappy only because there are those with more? Leaving aside the risible opinion that for the wealthy to lose some of their money would be akin to a woman being violently disfigured, one is left to wonder that it has never occurred to Ms. “Galt” that maybe the poor are unhappy not only because they see that there are those that have more money than they do. Maybe the fact that they can’t afford food and a decent place to live has something to do with it. Maybe the inability to provide one’s children with all they need or want would weigh more heavily than the sight of a Lexus driving down the street. Maybe, just maybe, there are objective downsides to poverty.

This particular bit of nonsense is just one example of a phenomenon I’ve seen quite a bit of: a noted lack of empathy from conservative and libertarian thinkers. This isn’t a particularly novel insight—after all, the stereotype is that the hearts of us liberal types simply bleed empathy—but I’ve noticed one particular strain of empathy failure has to do with what I consider to be an error in levels of abstraction.

Abstraction is important. It is by generalizing that we turn experience into prediction, examples into rules. The ability to see beyond one’s own circumstances is, itself, a kind of abstraction, and one that can lead to more, not less, empathy. And of course dealing only with specifics bogs debate down with anecdotes, and fails to address principles.

But discourse that occurs only at the level of abstraction runs the risk of ignoring that which was abstracted. When talking about unemployment numbers or casualty rates it’s important to remember that there are real people behind these numbers. Taxation, for example, is fairly universally unpopular, but it’s also widely acknowledged to be essential for funding the services on which citizens rely. In a discussion about a criminally under-funded social program, is it not a failure of empathy to gloss over pleas on the behalf of those who are not served to argue instead about the justness of taxation at all? Is staking out an abstract principle nothing more than avoiding the unpleasant reality?

When considering the merits of a proposition like universal health care, what do you consider? Do you believe that millions of children and adults without the ability to pay for doctor’s visits and medicine is a tragedy that we, as a society have a duty to confront? Or is your primary concern “moral hazard” – the idea that if a person has access to health care they might use it “wastefully,” getting tests and treatments that they don’t need. (Even if such a proposition isn’t ludicrous to you on its face, that is, even if you accept that it reflects a likely or even possible outcome of universal insurance coverage, do you consider this to be a worse outcome than the status quo?)

When a group of women tells you about their experiences in a decidedly male-dominated society, and about how their experiences have affected their relationships with family, lovers, and even their own bodies, and when they insist that there is a pernicious sexism even in today’s enlightened society, and that even well-intentioned comments can sometimes cause hurt, what do you say? Do you apologize for giving offense, if you have done so? Do you keep silent if you have nothing constructive to say? Or do you muse aloud that it’s an interesting proposition and wonder how such a hypothesis might be tested, as if we were talking about a thought experiment and not real people and their lives?

Political philosophy and economic theory are important tools. Debates about abstract concepts are often helpful and nearly always enjoyable, but a refusal to engage with those who are concerned about the concrete realities that underlie the abstractions is, to at least some extent, and abrogation of one’s moral duties. When debating the issues of our time we must not, in our zeal to see the forest, overlook the trees.

Abstraction and Empathy

0 thoughts on “Abstraction and Empathy

  1. Setting aside entirely the fact that what she says is ridiculous and that she’s utterly wrong – she’s clearly never had to choose between rent and groceries – anything she had to say was, IMO, cancelled out entirely by the phrase “thought experiment” and the fact she was making her case on a blog, a decidedly more-than-low-income arena. Maybe it’s naive of me, however, but it seems like those might, in themselves, be ways by which she’s trying to make her argument more appealing: she thinks she’s preaching to the choir, trying to find some common class ground with her audience to sway them to her way of thinking. I say it’s naive because maybe Randroids don’t actually care about the usual methods of persuasion because, you know, A=A and it’s all self-evident and everything, but if that is her goal – to build that sort of conversational bridge, stake out that shared territory in the class spectrum in hopes that by appealing to people who are like her in one way already she can make them more like her in others – then it is also a blatant manipulation, an argument that attempts to create a fear in the reader that one day The Redistribution Police may show up and take the reader’s own stuff away and give it to the poor, the liberal and other heathens and then use that artificial fear to support her argument. It’s not just “this is a dumb idea,” it’s “they’re coming to get you!” wearing a conversational disguise. It’s a sampling of the very worst sort of fear-mongering we’ve come to enjoy as part and parcel of right-wing rhetoric.

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