Category Archives: Barack Obama

Empathy and Justice

My remarks at a conference entitled “Empathy …. or Ways of Caring,” Harvard Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, March 15, 2019. (Apologies for some cutting and pasting from previous posts.)

Doris Sommer mentioned that Barack Obama popularized the notion of an “empathy deficit.” In a 2004 interview with Oprah Winfrey, while he was still a State Senator, Obama said:

I often say we’ve got a budget deficit that’s important, we’ve got a trade deficit that’s critical, but what I worry about most is our empathy deficit. When I speak to students, I tell them that one of the most important things we can do is to look through somebody else’s eyes. People like bin Laden are missing that sense of empathy. That’s why they can think of the people in the World Trade Center as abstractions. They can just crash a plane into them and not even consider, “How would I feel if my child were in there?”

Here Obama links empathy to moral judgment. In a 2006 commencement address, he also implies that the level of empathy in a society as a whole is a precondition of social justice. Our “empathy deficit” explains why we accept that “Americans … sleep in the streets and beg for food,” that “inner-city children …. are trapped in dilapidated schools,” and that “innocent people [are] being slaughtered and expelled from their homes half a world away .”[2]

To suggest that this argument is problematic, I would quote then-President Obama in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013:

I — I’m going off script here for a second, but before I — before I came here, I — I met with a — a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons.

I honestly believe that if — if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed. (Applause.) I want them to prosper. I want them to have opportunities just like my kids do. (Applause.) I believe that’s what Israeli parents would want for these kids if they had a chance to listen to them and talk to them. (Cheers, applause.) I believe that. (Cheers, applause.)

It is not so much the speech as the applause that I find problematic, because I believe that the Israeli electorate supports policies that are unjust, and their political behavior is compatible with a fair amount of actual empathy.

The word “empathy” is a modern coinage. It is not attested before 1895, and it gained its current meaning only in 1946. Many wise people have thought about moral psychology and justice without using this word at all, so we should consider whether it does us any good.*

I’d posit the following definitions:

  • Empathy: Feeling a similar emotion in response to someone else’s emotional state. Your friend is mad at her boss because he treated her unfairly. That makes you mad at her boss. Your anger is probably different in texture and intensity from hers, but it’s the same in kind, an imperfect reproduction of her mental state.
  • Sympathy: Feeling a supportive emotion in response to someone else’s emotional state that is not the same as that person’s original emotion. She is mad at her boss, so you become sorry for her, or committed to fairness, or sad about the state of the world, or nostalgic for better times–but not angry at her boss. Then you are sympathetic. (NB You can be both sympathetic and empathetic if you feel several emotions.)
  • Compassion: A species of the genus sympathy. Another person’s negative emotion causes you to have a specific supportive feeling that is not the same as her emotion: you sincerely wish that her distress would end without blaming her for it.
  • Justice: A situation or decision characterized by fairness, goodness, rightness, etc. (These are contestable ideas and may be in tension with each other.) The English word “just”–like dikaios in classical Greek–can be applied either to a situation or to a person who cares and aims for justice.

There is an old and rich debate about which character traits and subjective states are best suited to pursuing justice. One answer is that you should be a just person, one who tries to decide what is fair or best for all (all things considered), who desires that outcome, and who works to pursue it.

A different response is that we are not well suited to defining and pursuing justice itself. We lack the cognitive and motivational qualities that would allow us to grasp justice and reliably act on it.

Justice is an abstract idea that takes the form of words: it is discursive. According to a mainstream view in contemporary moral psychology, we first form emotional opinions about concrete situations and then we select the ideas that will justify those opinions, post-hoc. Justice doesn’t guide us; it justifies and excuses us.**

In that case, it might be better to cultivate emotions, such as empathy, sympathy, compassion–or loyalty, aversion to harm, or commitment to specific rules–in order to deliver more just outcomes, all things considered.

In her remarks, Marina Amelina noted that developed countries built social welfare systems between ca. 1880 and 1970. That could because their publics became more empathetic. But it also be because less-wealthy people gained power and used it to protect themselves. Equal power plus self-interest might generate justice more reliably than empathy. John Rawls famously modeled justice as the decisions that self-interested parties would make if they were rendered perfectly equal by a Veil of Ignorance that blocked them from knowing their own situations. In the real world, we can approximate the Veil of Ignorance by assuring that everyone has equal rights and powers. This is a clear alternative to the view that justice should be built on empathy.

Paul Bloom and others argue that empathy is particularly unreliable guide to justice, more likely to mislead than to inform. For instance, Donald Trump can make people feel empathy for a small number of individuals whose families were allegedly victimized by undocumented aliens, and then use that emotion to build support for deporting millions of people who have harmed no one. A famous example is Edmund Burke’s outrage at the mistreatment of Marie Antoinette, which obscured any concern for the countless people tortured, executed, or “disappeared” by the ancien regime that she represented. (By the way, I respect Burke–and I don’t think it was fair or smart to execute the Queen–but this passage is still a good example of misplaced empathy.)

Empathy can also substitute for justice, as the transcript from Jerusalem that I quoted earlier suggests. You congratulate yourself for feeling some version of a suffering person’s emotion and excuse yourself from fixing the problem.

Compassion may be better than empathy. Instead of feeling the same emotion as the other person, you feel a combination of beneficence and equanimity that may be a more reliable guide to acting well. But it’s possible that compassion only clears the deck for reasoning about what you should actually do.

Other candidates for emotional states that might be more reliable than empathy include solidarity, responsiveness, openness, and intellectual humility.

For its part, justice can be emotional. You can feel a powerful urge to make the world more just. That is helpful insofar as the feeling motivates you and insofar as people obtain genuine insights from our emotions; but it is dangerous because the emotion of desiring justice can be misplaced. You can feel great about improving the world when you are actually harming it.

In the end, I think we must wrestle with these questions:

  1. Can we human beings reason explicitly about justice in ways that improve upon our strictly affective reactions to particular situations? Can we put into words what is good or fair, and why, and make ourselves accountable for that position? Or is this always special-pleading, mere rhetorical justification for what we have already decided based on our emotions?
  2. Does an improvement in social justice indicate an improvement in empathy?
  3. If we should cultivate an emotional stance toward others as a buttress of—or an alternative to—justice, should that stance be empathy, or rather compassion, responsiveness, solidarity, humility, or something else?

*Buddhism is perhaps most widely associated with the virtue that Obama calls “empathy”—in his terms, “the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us” (Northwestern Commencement speech). But Emily McRae notes that “empathy” has no direct translation in Sanskrit or other languages that have been used to express the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Key words from that tradition are better translated as “compassion” and “sympathetic joy.” McRae derives a theory of empathy from Buddhist texts, but she focuses on phrases like “exchanging self and other” rather than any single word that corresponds to “empathy.” McRae, “Empathy, Compassion, and ‘Exchanging Self and Other’ in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Ethics” in Heidi Maibom , ed., The Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy (Routledge, 2017).

**Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion(New York: Vintage, 2012), pp. 27-51; Ann Swidler, Talk of Love: How Culture Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2001); pp. 147-8; Leslie Paul Thiele, The Heart of Judgment: Practical Wisdom, Neuroscience, and Narrative Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Jesse Graham, Brian A. Nosek, Brian A., Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, & Peter H. Ditto, “Mapping the Moral Domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 101, no. 2  (2011)., p. 368)

See also: empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; empathy: good or bad?; “Empathy” is a new word. Do we need it?; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy

President Obama on how he discusses policy with Republicans

Jonathan Chait’s entire interview with the president is fascinating. It offers Obama’s perspective on his own presidency, which is not the objective reality, but it is full of insights.

For instance, Chait asks, “So it’s January 27, 2009, and you hear Boehner say he is against the stimulus. I’ve heard complaints from Republicans about what you’re like in these meetings. They say you’re didactic and you lecture. In a situation like that, are you trying to discuss Keynesian theory and saying, ‘Do you believe in stimulus?’ At what level is the discussion held?”

Obama first responds, “You know, the truth of the matter is, it’s hard for me to characterize myself. You’re probably better off talking to some staff members who sit in on these meetings.” He’s right about that: none of us can objectively assess how we appear in interactions with others, especially in tense and difficult situations. No one would accuse this president of being unprepared, uninformed, or intentionally offensive, but it’s possible that his professorial manner alienates some people who read him as acting superior. As he acknowledges, he’s not the one to judge that.

He does, however, review his good relationships with Republicans in the Illinois legislature. He believes his problem with Republicans in Washington is strategic rather than personal: they decided to block his entire agenda in 2009, both to reverse their electoral losses and to appease their base.

Then he gives a window into how the conversations would actually unfold:

Look, typically what would happen, certainly at the outset, it would be that I would say, “We’ve got a big problem: We’re losing 800,000 jobs a month. Every economist I’ve talked to, including Republican economists, thinks that we need to do a big stimulus, and I’m willing to work with you to figure out how this package looks.”

Note the combination of a policy argument–which could be considered didactic, although it’s also correct–followed by an invitation to discuss.

And typically, what you’d get would be, “Well, Mr. President, I’m not sure that this big spending approach is the right one, and families are tightening their belts right now, and I don’t hear a lot of my constituents saying that they want a bunch of big bureaucracies taking their hard-earned tax money and wasting it on a bunch of make-work projects around the country. So we think that government’s got to do that same thing that families do.” So you kind of hit that ideological wall. I’m sure that after about four or five of those sessions, at some point, I might say, “Look, guys, we have a history here dating back to the Great Depression,” and I might at that point try to introduce some strong policy arguments. What I can say unequivocally is that there has never been a time in which I did not say, “Look, you tell me how you want to do this. Give me a sense of how you want to approach it.”

A common criticism of the president is that he’s too cerebral; he doesn’t know how to appeal to self-interest and make a deal. He offers three responses to that charge.

First, Republicans did not think it was in their self-interest to negotiate at all. “During the health-care debate, you know, there was a point in time where, after having had multiple negotiations with [Iowa senator Chuck] Grassley … in exasperation I finally just said …, ‘Is there any form of health-care reform that you can support?’ and he shrugged and looked a little sheepish and said, ‘Probably not.'”

Second, Obama insists that he did work the phones. “It’s interesting, in 2011, when the left had really gotten irritated with me because of the budget negotiations, there was always this contrast between Obama and LBJ, who really worked Congress. But I tell you, those two weeks, that was full LBJ. I think [White House photographer] Pete Souza has a picture series of every meeting and phone call that I was making during the course of that, which is actually pretty fun to see.”


The president calling a Member of Congress on March 19, 2010

Third, a 21st century president just doesn’t have the bargaining tools that were available to an LBJ, not to mention an Abe Lincoln. “And one of the things that’s changed from the Johnson era obviously is I don’t have a postmaster job. … Good-government reforms have hamstrung an administration, which I think is for the most part for the best. But it means that what you’re really saying to them is, ‘This is the right thing to do and I’ll come to your fund-raiser in Podunk and I will make sure that I’ve got your back.'”

I’d add that not only patronage but the whole legislative process has changed in ways that reduce a president’s ability to deal transactionally with Members of Congress. Just to name one change, Congress now sends relatively few bills to the president, and they tend to be omnibus compromises that he more or less has to sign. Thus he can’t use a targeted veto threat to get a Member’s vote. Johnson received about eight times more bills from Congress than Obama gets.

The president is good at understanding and addressing differences of principle. For instance, “[Former congressman] Bart Stupak was a very sincere, pro-life legislator and a Democrat, a really good man who worked really hard with me to try to get to yes and ended up getting there, working along with Sister Carol [Keehan], the head of the Catholic hospitals, despite strong opposition from the Catholic bishops. So in some cases there really were legitimate difficulties, substantive issues that had to be worked through.”

The president has not been as successful at winning zero-sum negotiations, but I have often felt that he’s played a weak hand pretty well.

Krugman evolves

In today’s column, Paul Krugman defends president Obama as “an extremely consequential president, doing more to advance the progressive agenda than anyone since L.B.J.” Krugman challenges “the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.” He rejects the premise that a “sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions.” Obama’s achievements, Krugman says, “have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality.” And that, Krugman argues, is the only way change happens in our system.

Between 2008 and 2010, I wrote a dozen posts and a Huffington Post piece defending President Obama against Krugman’s persistent critiques from the left. Then Krugman argued that we were in serious trouble because we had been “governed by people with the wrong ideas.” Obama should have challenged Republicans’ ideas with much stronger and more effective rhetoric in order to change public opinion. Instead, the president compromised on his progressive stance, and therefore Americans did not understand their options. Communication was everything for Krugman in those days. One column alone included these phrases: “What Mr. Obama should have said… Mr. Obama could and should be hammering Republicans… There were no catchy slogans, no clear statements of principle.” The president “has the bully pulpit,” but it will be worthless unless he “can find it within himself … to actually take a stand.”

Now Krugman says that it has never worked to try to shift public opinion dramatically to achieve radical policy. “Even F.D.R., who rode the depths of the Great Depression to a huge majority, had to be politically pragmatic, working not just with special interest groups but also with Southern racists.”

I absolutely do not blame Krugman for changing his mind. I am not calling him on an inconsistency here. He is doing what any intelligent person should do: intently studying the unfolding of history and forming and revising his opinions. My views have also changed since 2008, and if they hadn’t, I would be ashamed of my pig-headedness. I call attention to Krugman’s evolved views because they provide a kind of evidence in favor of one view of American politics. A Nobel-laureate economist with a very sharp eye for politics has tried out a couple of hypotheses, and the accumulated evidence as of 2016 leads him to endorse the strategies of Barack Obama ca. 2008-10.

the State of the Union’s peroration on citizenship

The President concluded his final State of the Union address with a rousing statement about citizenship. That was appropriate, because he has done the same thing in almost all of his most important speeches, including the 2004 Democratic Convention speech that launched his national career, his kickoff address announcing his candidacy for president in 2007, and both inaugural addresses. For the record, I past below the fold an anthology of Barack Obama’s strongest statements on the theme of citizenship (1988-2016), culminating with last night’s SOTU. I will be especially interested to hear what he says on this topic once he is out of the Oval Office and beginning the career of nongovernmental citizenship that he hinted at last night. Continue reading

missing the civic empowerment messages of a Pope and a President

Michelle Boorstein compares the enthusiastic responses to Pope Francis in 2015 and Barack Obama in 2008 and collects several explanations for both:

  1. People have “an undeniable, sweeping affinity, a gut reaction to a new leader to whom we attach huge expectations …,  even though most Americans don’t know much about Francis.”
  2. “Does the pope’s all-embracing commentary, which seems to exclude no one, have particular resonance in an increasingly diverse country?”
  3. Does “Francis offer people hope of rescue with his confident proclamations about what needs to be done to fix the world? Cartoonists and graffiti artists have often drawn him as a caped superhero.”
  4. “Francis is an accessible father figure at the helm of one of the world’s largest organizations.”
  5. “People love the blank slate.”

Let me suggest an alternative. Both the president and the Pope talk explicitly about how we, active citizens, can and must address problems. These two men may have been caricatured as caped superheroes, but they are as clear as one can be that they are not the solutions to our problems; we are.

This was the main theme of Obama’s Springfield speech announcing his candidacy in 2007, an important note in his Grant Park speech on Election Night 2008, and a recurrent topic throughout the campaign. When he accepted the Democratic nomination in 2012, he put it concisely: “As citizens,” Obama said, “we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.” I have collected many more similar quotes here.

As for the Holy Father, he said recently, “the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.”

I believe that people hear and are moved by these invocations of their power, agency, and responsibility. They do not treat Obama and the Pope as blank slates or as accessible personalities; they feel moved to take action.

Meanwhile, the press completely ignores these leaders’ talk of civic engagement. That theme was never covered in the 2008 presidential campaign, and no one mentions it when they cover the Pope. Obama’s critics especially misunderstand his civic appeal, thinking that it is narcissistic. (“We are the ones we have been waiting for” is literally misheard as “I am the one you have been waiting for”). And we see basically patronizing explanations of why these leaders strike a chord.

See also how to respond to a leader’s call for civic renewal; the encyclical Laudato Si and the power of peoples to organize; and Taking the President Seriously About Citizenship.