Peter Singer on what's wrong with empathy

Recently I read Peter Singer's review article 'The Empathy Trap' on the Project-Syndicate.org 'opinion page' website.

Singer is the Australian philosopher most famous for applying John Stuart Mill's 19th century utilitarianism principles to modern ethical dilemmas. My study of ethics and moral theology in 1980-81 coincided with the publication of his classic text Practical Ethics. Singer was the bête noire of my teachers and I have since regarded his thinking with both interest and suspicion.

I was captivated by the social justice advocacy and activism of the time, which also featured prominently in the secondary school religious education curriculum. I remember Wendy Poussard's school text book Walk in My Shoes, which was used to teach students empathy with the poor.

Poussard's text represented the view that there were particular values that were non-negotiable. They could not be subjected to any kind of utilitarian calculus. The argument against this is that the ethics of empathy can be extraordinarily subjective. We can put ourselves in the 'shoes' of whales, but what about other animals or human beings? As Singer argues, 'empathy makes us kinder to [beings] with whom we empathise'.

He says: 'Trump, in his campaign speeches, made use of the tragic murder of Kate Steinle by an undocumented immigrant to stoke support for his anti-immigrant policies. He did not, of course, offer any similarly vivid portrayals of undocumented immigrants who have saved the lives of strangers, although such cases have been reported.'

Singer's review article relates to the the book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, written by Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom.

He supports Bloom's argument that our ability to reason has a crucial part to play in ethical decisions, and empathy is just as likely to lead us to do the wrong thing. 'Animals with big round eyes, like baby seals, arouse more empathy than chickens, on whom we inflict vastly more suffering'.

I notice that The Conversaton has today begun a series on empathy, including the question of whether doctors and other professionals need more empathy, and when it can be counter-productive. It gets into questions of how empathy can be measured and contained, and whether it should be.

In December The Conversation had an article on Matthew Flinders' encounters with Indigenous Australians. It looked at genuine evidence for his feelings of empathy and sense of morality but concluded that they were always contained by his sense of duty, which was to explore and map the Australian coast and keep his ship's company safe.

If Flinders' empathy was relative to his sense of duty, Singer's empathy is subject to his own particular kind of rationalism. In other words, Singer's rationalism is limited in the way that economic rationalism is subject to the principles of free market economics. He can't pretend that his is the king of all rationalisms. I think that we need to agree with him about the absurdities that he points out regarding the manipulation of empathy, but use art and spirituality to supplement the dominant rationality in our society.

When fear is used to teach meditation

Yesterday I wrote about breath awareness. Its purpose was to overcome the 'disturbing turmoil' of mind chatter during meditation. Later in the day I was reminded of my early attempts at meditation as an 18 year old Jesuit novice at Canisius College, Pymble, in Sydney, in the late 70s.

'Disturbing turmoil' is also apt to describe my experience when I told the novice master - my spiritual director - that my attempts to meditate were not working. I said that I just couldn't quieten my mind and that I would sit there and fidget. He yelled at me and threatened to expel me from the Jesuit training I'd begun a few months earlier.

Canisius College Pymble Sydney

In those days it was common to use fear as a technique in teaching and training in schools and various institutions, including those in which religious 'formation' took place. This novice master had been rector of the diocesan seminary at Werribee outside Melbourne for many years, where he was responsible for the training of several generations of priests for the dioceses of Victoria and Tasmania during the Catholic Church's vocations boom of the 50s and 60s.

He had a reputation for being quite a tyrant but was supposed to have undergone a transformation after moving on from his role at the seminary in the late 60s. It was the time of the 'flower power' generation and he grew his hair long and embraced a peace loving ethos as a fiftysomething university chaplain. He also took on with gusto the spirit of Vatican II renewal and it seemed to make sense to put him in charge of training Jesuits in their first two years of formation.

But a leopard does not change its spots, and he turned out to be quite a fearsome novice master, even though the content of his teaching was solid and nuanced and he was interested in, and taught, the latest thinking in psychology, and meditation techniques from eastern religions. There was a certain incongruity in having such an authoritarian figure teaching Zen Buddhist and other eastern meditation techniques, which had been made popular at the time by the Jesuits William Johnston and Tony D'Mello.

My response to his yelling at me for not being able to meditate was to retreat from my honesty. I used my imagination to construct elaborate but believable scenarios in which I falsely claimed to have had breakthroughs in my attempts at meditation. At times he seemed most impressed with the progress he believed I was making. In hindsight, I think it was a tribute to my creativity, and I look back on it with an odd mixture of pride and shame.

I was actually very interested in spirituality at an intellectual level and would do a lot of reading and pay close attention to what he would teach my group of novices. That is why it was easy for me to construct the scenarios and to tell him what he wanted to hear. I'd learned that it was not acceptable for me to tell him what he did not want to hear, and it seemed that the truth or otherwise of what I was saying was secondary.

I survived my two years of formation in the novitiate and was approved to 'take vows' and go on to the next stage. But needless to say, the actual daily meditation that is essential to the way of life I was embarking upon did not become a part of my life. Sadly I suspect that my experience was quite common and that it accounts for many Catholic priests and religious either abandoning their vocation or remaining but not living their vocation.

Music theatre's happiness pill

On Saturday evening I went to a musical, Nick Enright's Summer Rain at the New Theatre in Newtown. It's about a travelling family tent show and drought breaking rains breathing new life into a depressed NSW country town in 1945.

Lots of song and dance and emotion, with a little intrigue and enmity. I rarely go to musicals. I'm lucky enough to have a reality that I don't feel the need to escape from. But I'm very pleased I went, and so is the friend whom I dragged along.

A musical is a happiness pill, and happiness is something that none of us can get enough of. It's about the quality of our life.

New Theatre Summer Rain

The New Theatre is a small theatre and we were in the second row. At times the members of the cast would gaze into my eyes as they sang their melodies. They were hard at work attempting to instil in me a transfer of pathos and happiness and hope for a brighter future.

On Sunday morning I had in my consciousness the afterglow of the harmonies of the beautiful singing and the positive energy radiating from the expressive faces and gestures. I picked up the Sunday paper to find columnist Peter FitzSimons congratulating Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews for his push to legalise euthanasia in the new year.

I'm usually a supporter of progressive law reform, but euthanasia is a notable exception. My view might change if I or somebody close to me arrives in a place of utter physical and mental debilitation. But for now, what prevails is my strong and possibly fundamentalist religious belief that it is God that is the giver and taker of life, not our parliamentarians.

Of course I don't seek to impose my religious belief on others. But I fear that the utilitarian views of the majority will be imposed on me when the legal right to die becomes the (unlegislated) duty to die.

What I mean is that I can see that the time will come when the usefulness of my life is exhausted according to the measure of some form of economic rationalism. It's a form of eugenics. There will be a subtle moral pressure for me to take a pill to end my life, not unlike the moral imperative to offer our seat on the bus to a fellow passenger who needs it more than we do.

I would prefer to take a happiness pill, and to receive the community's moral support in my choice to do this.

Euthanasia advocates maintain there is absolutely no logical progression from the right to die to the duty to die. They are right. But what concerns me is the utilitarian moral duty to die, and that this will prevail against my own values concerning the beginning and end of life.

I may be naive in thinking that I will never get to the point at which I will want to choose to end my life. But I think it is also naive to assume that legal approval for 'voluntary' euthanasia will include the community's moral approval of the voluntary aspect of the legislation.