Ah, Nazi Germany, that impregnable fortress of moral high ground. Witness how fast Mr. Brooks retreats there after sallying out against those prophets of decency, the school teachers, and their foolish insistence on empathy:
The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.
In the early days of the Holocaust, Nazi prison guards sometimes wept as they mowed down Jewish women and children, but they still did it. Subjects in the famous Milgram experiments felt anguish as they appeared to administer electric shocks to other research subjects, but they pressed on because some guy in a lab coat told them to. [We'll assume, for our purposes here, that the association between those who work in a lab coat and those who worked in a concentration camp is only incidental.]
Empathy, Mr. Brooks explains, is simply weakness leaving the body only to rebound and crush its possessor’s capacity for tough moral action:
Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar. [We will not assume it, for our purposes here, merely incidental that Mr. Brooks can only afford examples of positive moral action that involve money.]
Empathy is fine, sure, let the teachers have their fun, and, yes, Mr. Brooks assures us, mirror neurons really do exist, but we can’t let such trifles distract us from what we really need: someone or something to tell us what to do — or, in Mr. Brooks’ terms, a code:
People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.
You see, what Mr. Brooks is trying to show us is that we cannot afford (pun always intended when speaking of Mr. Brooks) to rely on our sense of the humanity of others, on the likeness of others to ourselves – it’s too risky, too weak. Sure, Jesus and the like advise us to love our neighbors as ourselves, but they don’t understand like Mr. Brooks does, how things actually work:
Some influences, which we think of as trivial, are much stronger [than empathy] — such as a temporary burst of positive emotion. In one experiment in the 1970s, researchers planted a dime in a phone booth. Eighty-seven percent of the people who found the dime offered to help a person who dropped some papers nearby, compared with only 4 percent who didn’t find a dime. Empathy doesn’t produce anything like this kind of effect.
Jesus didn’t know the value of the dime like Mr. Brooks (he kept turning them over to Caesar)! Such moral efficacy provoked by the discovery of a mere dime! Imagine if these subjects had discovered millions of dollars and not just a dime in that phone booth what wonderful people they’d suddenly become. (Or maybe we don’t have to imagine.)
So, besides the allusion to those empathetic but morally weak Nazi guards, what else proves the weakness of empathy for Mr. Brooks? Well there’s a study. But we could easily array studies of our own on the side of empathy. There’s also empathy’s reputation among scholars (Mr. Brooks doesn’t indicate which, we’ll have take his word for it) for being a “fragile flower.” But if you’re still not convinced, there’s this test:
Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them. The code tells them that an adulterer or a drug dealer may feel ecstatic, but the proper response is still contempt.
I’ll take Mr. Brooks up on his offer. (We’ll leave Jesus aside since the questionof whether he or Mr. Brooks is a superior moral teacher remains undecided). I admire Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman the seer, the bodily minister to those hundreds dying of wounds received in that terrible war. Was it a code that moved him to positive moral action?
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself?
Maybe not. But maybe the ministering to the dying is not the positive moral action that Mr. Brooks would have me aspire to — Whitman was, after all, no doctor, and his no life saving work.
(yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there)
Alright, I’ll think of some one else: Mr. Wallace Stevens. Surely even Mr. Brooks can admire Mr. Stevens, the prosperous executive of a successful business. So, surely, Mr. Stevens selected some code to conduct his life by?
Among so many objects, it would be the merest improvisation to say of one, even though it is one with which we are vitally concerned, that it is the chief. The next step would be to assert that a particular image was the chief image. Again, it would be the merest improvisation to say of any image of the world, even though it was an image with which a vast accumulation of imaginations had been content, that it was the chief image. The imagination itself would not remain content with it nor allow us to do so. It is the irrepressible revolutionist.
Evidently, Mr. Stevens was too busy bothering about imagination to submit his values to a code (pick a code, any code, Mr. Brooks pleads). The above quotation, however, may not make evident the big problem with imagination. But Mr. Shelley will explain:
The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.
Well, that explains it: empathy.
Alright, so Mr. Brooks and I evidently admire different people. Besides, Mr. Brooks is not calling me to arms against a sea of poets but against a host of polite teachers and cordial conventions. On this point, Mr. Brooks and I might gather. But, whereas Mr. Brooks identifies a problem in kind, I see a problem of degree. Let us take, for example, a recent study. Researchers at the University of Buffalo recently discovered that reading can improve one’s ability to empathize — with vampires:
Published by the journal Psychological Science, the study found that participants who read the Harry Potter chapters self-identified as wizards, whereas participants who read the Twilight chapter self-identified as vampires. And “belonging” to these fictional communities actually provided the same mood and life satisfaction people get from affiliations with real-life groups. “The current research suggests that books give readers more than an opportunity to tune out and submerge themselves in fantasy worlds. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment,” Gabriel and Young write.
These findings we are made to understand are important because it proves the social value of reading fiction and might thereby persuade those with money (read: power) to scrape a few more dimes out of the barrel and throw them at the teachers of literature thanking them politely for the dance. This, I think, is the kind of study whose value Mr. Brooks scoffs at. I sympathize with his response — to a degree. It’s the sort of logic that calls for a revival of the Cosby show but this time with Muslims.
Unlike Mr. Brooks I do value these studies, but I refuse to be satisfied by them. I’ll continue to believe that literature, that art, has more of moral value to offer than Cosby with a prayer-rug. Empathy may not only exceed such example by degree, but it might be more complex a concept than Mr. Brooks has yet to allow. Because maybe the imagination of Bill Cosby is one thing, and the imagination of Eudora Welty another:
That hot August night when Medgar Evers, the local civil rights leader, was shot down from behind in Jackson, I thought, with overwhelming directness: Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place. That is, I ought to have learned by now, from here, what such a man, intent on such a deed, had going on in his mind. I wrote his story – my fiction – in the first person: about that character’s point of view, I felt, through my shock and revolt, I could make no mistake. The story pushed its way up through a long novel I was in the middle of writing, and was finished on the same night the shooting had taken place.
Maybe you read Twilight or maybe you read A Defense of Poetry – few, I imagine, read both.
But maybe we should do more than just hope that people develop this moral sense . Maybe our powers of imagination are too fragile, too complex, in fact, to be safely relied on. So, how to combat the weakness of empathy? How to combat this craze? What, finally, is the solution?
The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow. If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes. Accept that codes conflict.
Now that you mention it, Mr. Brooks, I can’t say that I admire them, but I can think of a group of people strongly dedicated to a code (who even made a similar point about codes conflicting), who pursued its dictates with joy, to whom, as you’ve already pointed out, empathy was but a sideshow:
All kidding aside, Mr. Brooks maybe right on his side and I may be right on mine. One can act morally without thinking so, according to a code. But maybe after all I prefer to love a life rather than its code; prefer to love the thief of my heart, rather than obey its master.
The partaker partakes of that which changes him.
The child that touches takes character from the thing,
The body, it touches. The captain and his men
Are one and the sailor and the sea are one.
Follow after, O my companion, my fellow, my self,
Sister and solace, brother and delight.