Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Is Science Catching Up to the Objectivist Ethics?

An interesting article appeared in the Washington Post. In Being empathetic is good, but it can hurt your health, Jennifer Breheny Wallace reports:

Empathy — the ability to tune into and share another person’s emotion from their perspective — plays a crucial role in bringing people together. It’s the joy you feel at a friend’s wedding or the pain you experience when you see someone suffering.

It’s an essential ingredient for building intimacy in relationships, says Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “When someone feels seen and heard by you,” she says, “they begin to trust you.”

But this seemly positive emotion can also have a downside, particularly if someone gets so consumed by another’s feelings that they neglect their own feelings and needs. Stern says those who regularly prioritize others’ emotions over their own are more susceptible to experiencing anxiety or low-level depression. [emphasis added]

Another researcher quoted in the article, Jamil Zaki, offers, “Being supportive of those we care about is among our most cherished and important roles, but it’s also one that’s fraught: We want to be there for someone but not lose ourselves.” [emphasis added]

If this sounds like a [partial] plug for rational selfishness, you’d be right in my view. I think what these people have in mind is rational selfishness, although not necessarily consciously. Also not mentioned is the term altruism. But that’s what Wallace has in mind—again, probably not consciously—when she talks about when “someone gets so consumed by another’s feelings that they neglect their own feelings and needs.” Self-neglect is exactly what altruism demands. And rational selfishness is what Zaki has in mind when he urges us “not to lose ourselves.”

Of course, altruism saps one’s self-esteem, as well. In fact, lack of self-esteem is probably a deeper, “root” cause of the anxiety and depression.

But the point here is that empathy does not and should not require putting other’s well-being above one’s own. Yet that’s precisely what altruism demands—not mere concern for others, but self-neglect and ultimately, if unchecked, self-destruction. Checked altruism—you believe in it but can’t practice it consistently—leads to another bad psychological outcome, unearned guilt.

Another researcher, Anneke Buffone, states:

“People assume that any kind of empathy is associated with positive health benefits and behaviors, but for the first time we have physical evidence that not all empathy is alike, that its positive or negative effects depend on the perspective you take.” [emphasis added]
Two perspectives offered are,

  • Emotional empathy, you actually put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel their emotion. This is the type of response that, left unchecked, can lead to caretaker burnout, says Zaki. 
  • And then there’s compassionate empathy, where you feel concern about another’s suffering, but from more of a distance and with a desire to help the person in need. 

I would label the alternative perspectives self-sacrificial ‘empathy’ vs. selfish empathy, or altruism vs. rational selfishness. There’s more to this interesting article. It’s worth a read.

Objectivists know that altruism is self-destructive, and that rational selfishness is the only basis not only for achieving personal happiness but also for healthy, respectful, human relationships, including relationships that involve helping others (all of which is, actually, the same thing). Is science catching up to the Objectivist ethics? If so, it’s a positive moral sign for the future. Altering the conventional understanding of what moral action entails—replacing self-sacrificial service to others with prioritizing one’s own selfish flourishing—is key to reversing the political trend toward some manifestation of totalitarian socialism.

I’m not saying that these researchers are full-blown advocates of the Objectivist Ethics. Whatever the moral conclusions, if any, of the authors, this research is a good sign because it provides—“for the first time,” according to the authors—physical evidence of altruism’s self-destructiveness.

Related Reading:

Books to Aid in Understanding Rational Selfishness

In Defense of Selfishness: Why the Code of Self-Sacrifice is Unjust and Destructive—Peter Schwartz

Related Viewing:


1 comment:

Mike Kevitt said...

I think if these researchers learn to associate their scientific facts with self interest, with rational self interest, with egoism or whatever, in opposition to altruism and self-sacrifice, they'll drop their science and their facts like hot potatoes and cling ferociously to altruism and self-sacrifice.