Peter Singer on what's wrong with empathy

Recently I read Peter Singer's review article 'The Empathy Trap' on the '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.

Does intercessory prayer work?

I remember when I was a Jesuit novice in the late 70s, that we would drive around Sydney in an orange VW Kombi van. When we needed a car parking space, two of the seven in my year believed we would find one if we said a prayer to St Gerard Majella. Two - including myself - thought that was rubbish, while the other three were somewhere in between.

We would always get a park in the end, and it remained a moot point whether we had St Gerard to thank. I was never convinced. I'm less hard line in my skepticism these days, though I believe that intercessory prayer works if it is not seen as a 'get out of jail free' card but more akin to the power of positive thought and initiative. We don't expect St Gerard to do the heavy lifting for us. He's there more to encourage us.

Oprah Winfrey said: 'The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude.' She would have been referring to major life goals and not trivial matters like car parking. But, according to her doctrine, if we believe we can find a park, and look in the right places, we will. The key is that it will be a result of our own actions.

My previous rejection of intercessory prayer was probably more in line with the reformed Protestant Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which rejects intercessory prayer out of hand.

I've always found it hard to understand how predestination is any different to fatalism, which is defeatist and undermining of human possibility. It's like the Filipino bahala na 'leave it up to God' laid-back attitude that could be responsible for that country's perennially poor economic performance.

This is in contrast to that of the US, where it was the father of free enterprise Benjamin Franklin who said 'God helps those who help themselves'. The paradox is that this self-seeking attitude contradicts the selflessness that is at the heart of the message of the Christian Gospel.

My thoughts about intercessory prayer were prompted by a friend from many years ago who wrote to me on Saturday about the tough time she's had in recent years. Sadly her Catholic faith has not delivered at her time of need. She said: 'I have stopped praying as not one prayer has been answered'.

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.

A time of peace and goodwill and breathing awareness

The words 'peace on earth' encapsulate the message of the Christmas season. But peace on earth is looking more remote this Christmas than at any Christmas I can remember.

In thinking about what to do about world peace, I think first about politics. I inform myself. I'm convinced that Australia must decide whether to get closer to America as the power that protected us during World War II, or pursue an independent foreign policy more open to a continuing relationship with our biggest trading partner China.

It is interesting, and it matters. If we choose the US, we will probably be a target in the event of a nuclear war because of how crucial the Pine Gap facility is to American defences (that is a reality about which our media are largely keeping us in the dark). If we choose China, we will ultimately have to dance to its tune because it is so much bigger than we are and becoming more inclined to throw its weight around.

Breathing aware Fitbit watch

I know that there is an important link between our concern for the health and wellbeing of the world and our own health and wellbeing. I have a hunch that many people who have given up caring about world peace have also given up caring for their own physical, mental and spiritual condition.

My thoughts about politics are actually a preamble to what is really my interest at this moment, which is the importance of stillness as the lynchpin of our wellbeing and a major factor in our ability to think clearly. By stillness, I mean a stillness of the mind (not the stillness of the couch potato watching the Boxing Day Test on TV).

Yesterday a friend sent me an extract from a Christmas meditation by the spiritual writer Richard Rohr. My friend is not conventionally religious but values the message of Rohr, who urges us to wait for a quietness within ourselves so that we can see the image of our God 'reflected in [our] own clear waters'. But only if 'the disturbing turmoil of thoughts dies down'.

The chatter of the mind is what disturbs my clear waters. It can make me angry and misdirect my passions and decision making. I am working at becoming still.

I'm finding that focusing the mind on my breathing rather than thoughts is a good start. My Fitbit fitness tracker watch has guided breathing sessions that monitor my biorhythms and give feedback. They can be helpful in training my mind to focus on the pattern of my breathing.

The stillness that this breathing awareness promotes allows a peace in our hearts that can gather pace as we mature. Another friend recalled yesterday that he was previously 'fuelled with rage and despair' but has now 'matured to a point where [he] can appreciate the humanity that connects us all'. I would guess that he now has more moments of stillness in his life.

Where Christmas is purely a religious celebration

Christmas is a celebration that I can take or leave, and it is one that I am free to take or leave. It is optional in that I have family available to me but no family obligations. I count that as my particular Christmas blessing.

Over the past 20 years, I've had some wonderful Christmas celebrations with parts of my family, and they've made it clear that I am welcome to join them any time but not expected. More often than not over the past decade, I've chosen to spend Christmas travelling, mainly because I was employed and required to take annual leave at the end of the year.

Nativity scene in Encarnacion Paraguay

I've spent Christmas Days in cities such as Hanoi, Toronto, Tainan (Taiwan), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Bandung (Indonesia), and Asunción (Paraguay). Sometimes with my travelling companion, sometimes alone.

My strangest experience of Christmas was in Latin America in 2009. Christmas there is understated because it is purely a religious celebration and not at all a commercial event. The absence of Christmas from public consciousness has nothing at all to do with the kind of political correctness in the US that Donald Trump is currently vowing to overturn.

In shopping malls, December is like any other month of the year. Decorations are only in churches and the homes of devout Christians. Paradoxically Christmas appears to be more prominent in some ostensibly atheist Communist countries such as China (though it is pointedly banned in North Korea).

While there were no signs of Christmas in the streets in Argentina and Uruguay, in Paraguay I saw nativity scenes (also called cribs or creches) in some public places. It's the particular tradition there, where the nativity scene is known as the pesebre. I took the photo above outside a bus station in the border city of Encarnación.

The nativity scenes there were obviously an indication of the exclusively religious nature of Christmas. But elsewhere it was different. I was in Montevideo a week before Christmas, and came across an early mardi gras procession. It had nothing to do with Christmas but was apparently quite normal in Uruguay.

December Mardi Gras in Montevideo Uruguay

In the public mind in these countries, Christmas is relative to other Catholic religious feasts. In Argentina, 25 December is a public holiday but so is 8 December, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Is the birth of Jesus that much more significant than his conception? Probably not.

On Christmas Eve in Asunción, the streets were deserted and restaurants were closed. Families were at home preparing for their own Christmas celebration and going to midnight mass. Eventually I found a hotel that was open and enjoyed a meal in the company other travellers from different countries.

It turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic in that we had a meal and a few drinks and then headed back to our various accommodation houses rather than looking for a church to take part in the celebration of midnight mass.

On Christmas morning, I recall lying in the swimming pool at the back of my guest house, somewhat more fittingly experiencing the solemnity of the day attuned to a stillness in the air that was breached only by the sweet sound of a choir singing Christmas carols somewhere in the distance.

The exclusive Christianity of the Sydney Anglicans

Just about every day, I walk past Moore College. It is the theological nerve centre of the Sydney Anglicans, prominently located at the beginning of King Street Newtown, across the road from the residential colleges of Sydney University.

I've been walking past it for nearly 25 years. The college has been housed in a forgettable 1960s style red brick building. However over the past two years, the site has undergone the most remarkable physical transformation. The old building was demolished and replaced with a much larger structure that must be regarded as a stunning piece of contemporary architecture. The builders handed the keys to the Principal just last month.

Even after 25 years, my stomach churns as I walk past Moore College. I don't expect that to change, no matter how much I like the building. The 'low church' theology and attitude reflected in the Sydney Diocese is the bête noire of almost the entire worldwide Anglican Communion, and personally I'm absolutely prejudiced against Sydney Anglicanism as I perceive it (the movement, not the people, I should stress).

Broadly speaking, it has a strident emphasis on reading and studying the Bible over a traditional Anglo Catholic-style 'high church' ornate liturgy or Mass celebration. Low church Anglicanism has always been at pains to stress its Protestant (and non- or anti-Catholic) identity. So I guess, as a Catholic - a 'Roman Catholic' - I'm hard wired to dislike it.

But that's not what really irks me. Rather it's the attitude that appears to exclude those who do not accept its teachings. Its exclusivity.

Over the years, I have also walked past and observed the other Anglican presence in my vicinity - St Stephen's Church, in Church Street Newtown.

When I moved here in 1993, the parish was at odds with most of the rest of the Sydney Diocese in that it was regarded as liberal. It had a sign at its gates: 'We Support the Ordination of Women'. Around 2000, there was some kind of regime change, and the sign was removed in a symbolic action that was seen by locals as a regrettable u-turn in the hitherto inclusive attitude of St Stephen's.

My guess it that head office decided that Newtown, with its large proportion of non-believers and GLBTIQ and various other alternative lifestyle types, was ripe for evangelisation, and it had to conform to the norms of the Diocese. But the locals had felt at one with the inclusive St Stephens and it seemed to me that they did not care for the perceived changes under the new regime.

The exclusive style of Christianity that I react against is reflected in the attitude that you're either a Christian or you're not. It's similar to that of George W. Bush after 9/11: 'Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists'. It is just as prevalent in the [Roman] Catholic Church as it is among evangelical Protestants, and also within other faiths, most notably Islam.

If somebody attempts to herd me into one of the two camps, I will go with those who are against the so-called Christians. But the truth is that most of my values come from Christianity and I cherish my Christian faith. But it's a Christian faith on my own terms and my community of believers are those who accept me for who I am and are not interested in bringing me into their particular religious fold.

The Catholic Church and homophobic bullying and violence

There was media coverage this week of a Queensland move to repeal the ‘unwanted homosexual advances’ defence for murder, commonly known as the 'gay panic defence'.

What I think is most remarkable about this development is that it was a Catholic priest - Father Paul Kelly - who heroically spearheaded the campaign that has been instrumental in getting the law reform to this stage.

Traditionally, and up to the present time, many Catholic priests have seen it as their duty to stand in the way of of justice for LGBTQI people. Some have even positively encouraged homophobic bullying or acts of violence.

Josh from ABC TV Please Like Me
Last year The Age revealed that the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart had buried a 2007 report aimed at protecting LGBTQI students in Catholic schools from homophobic bullying. It was titled Not So Straight and written by then Jesuit priest Father Peter Norden.

The archbishop said that use of the report in schools would 'either blur the clear position of the Church or by the use of terms such as "natural behaviour" imply a suggestion that alternative sexuality should be accepted.' He expressed the long held view that it was important to draw a line between behaviour regarded as normative and what the Church teaches is 'disordered'.

It was, and largely still is, regarded as important for church personnel to actively maintain this distinction, though The Age report does indicate that Archbishop Hart has softened his stance since 2007.

I have a clear personal recollection from the mid 80s of a retired Jesuit preparatory school principal boasting of 'sending out' his students to bully peers who were homosexual. The context was the AIDS crisis which, in his commonly held view at the time, had made it more urgent that homosexuals remain marginalised.

This priest had obviously become more candid and eccentric as he aged, but that only makes his boast more credible. He'd made it clear that he'd considered it his duty to promote homophobic bullying. Other priests would be more discrete or possibly repentant.

I think that this kind of blatant church denial of human rights for LGBTQI people has now given way to a culture of widespread and insidious self-censorship, which I was part of until a year ago.

As editor of Eureka Street, I would refer upwards editorial content that promoted a view of the acceptance of homosexuality as normative. A California based Jesuit had written an excellent and potentially groundbreaking article offering a theological basis for affirming transgender identity (eventually published elsewhere). I weakened the article in an initial edit, then received suggestions for further softening after the upward referral. Subsequently it was my self-censoring decision not to proceed with publication.

That's why I'm pleased to see that my successors appear less bound by self-censorship, as is evident with the publication of today's lead. Titled Queering the airwaves for TV diversity, it is an affirmation of the currently screening LGBTQI themed ABC comedy drama Please Like Me (pictured). Today's article strikes a much overdue Catholic Church initiated blow against homophobic bullying and violence.

Brian Doyle's surgery for brain cancer

I'm writing this early Thursday in Australia. In Portland, Oregon, it's Wednesday, and about now, legendary writer Brian Doyle is having surgery for brain cancer. That was the very sad news that spread around my former colleagues at Eureka Street magazine yesterday.


Brian Doyle diagnosed with brain cancer


At least it was sad for us, and certainly for his wife Mary and their three children. As for Brian, he's very concerned for them, but not so much for himself. Characteristically he's very matter of fact.

'If all goes well, I could get a year or maybe even two. They can’t delete it or fix it or cure it. The doctor thinks that if he can reduce it and shoot chemo at it, then it may be suppressed for long enough for a few more years of reading and writing and being with my wife and kids.'

You always know what's on his mind because that's about all there is to his writing. He doesn't care what people think. His writing lacks style, and for the most part he doesn't even use paragraphs. His articles are full of untidy lists, and he rants.

He's an editor's nightmare, but a reader's joy. It shows in the web statistics and in the reader comments at the bottom of his articles. And such a fine mind that mixes authenticity with humour and imagination and religious faith and kindness and a social conscience and a disdain for the many shady characters in the Catholic Church. There's a list worthy of Brian himself!

I don't know whether they have larrikins in the US. Perhaps they don't and that part of him feels out of place over there. That could be why he's developed such a bond over the years with Australia and his Australian readers and friends.

In the article they wrote about his diagnosis in his university newspaper The Beacon, he tells his friends that he values their laughter as much as, or even more than, the hundreds of supportive emails and phone calls. 'You want to help me? Be tender and laugh.' If that's not enough, you can contribute to the Doyle Family Support Fund at gofundme.

New body to test Church resolve on Professional Standards abuse

Yesterday I watched last week's Four Corners episode 'Broken Homes' on the child protection system for children in residential care. The moment that stayed with me, and no doubt many others, was former Victorian children's commissioner Bernie Geary talking about the case that affected him the most - 'the child who said "I'm not special in the eyes of anyone"'.

The program was about vulnerable children who need to be removed from their parental homes for their protection. But Bernie Geary's words in particular were also relevant to children from loving homes whose care is entrusted to institutions, such as Catholic and other boarding schools.

In effect it established this as a criterion for determining whether a child is or was receiving adequate care in the institution, or whether he or she the victims of abuse. I believe that abuse does not have to be active interference with a vulnerable individual. To fail to make a child feel special is neglect and abuse.

This is relevant to yesterday's announcement of the establishment of Catholic Professional Standards, an agency set up to monitor and report on child and vulnerable adult protection standards.

The media release suggests that the new body's responsibilities are broad - 'the protection of children and vulnerable adults across Church entities particularly in areas where there are no current relevant standards'.

It does not indicate that Catholic Professional Standards will have a remit for redressing past non-compliance. But it is very encouraging that it acknowledges that the body will give particular attention to areas where standards are lacking. The lack of standards is effectively lawlessness and a significant source of vulnerability and abuse for many young people in the way that civilian populations are subject to the whims of warlords in Somalia, Yemen, and other failed states.

What I like most about the announcement is that the body's attention is not confined to sexual abuse because much, or most, of the abuse in Catholic and other institutions was not specifically sexual. Last week I wrote about my own experience of what I called the 'culture of disrespect'. I think that Bernie Geary's criterion of a child being made to feel special - or not - is the obvious gold standard that should underscore everything else in the new body's standards checklist.

My fear was that Catholic Professional Standards would have a remit to focus on sexual abuse exclusively. But it's much broader. However there's not enough in the announcement to reassure me that it is interested in institutional reform rather than merely eliminating the 'bad eggs'. In other words scapegoating pedophile priests who, in many cases, are just as vulnerable as the children they abuse. I've often felt that putting them in prison is akin to jailing those suffering from mental illness. A convenient distraction from having to take responsibility for the source of the problem.

Relevant to this is a post on the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission at John Menadue's blog. Catholics for Renewal Chair Peter Johnstone gets it right when he insists that 'the Church’s institutional leadership must publicly acknowledge that its dysfunctional governance was at the heart of its immoral response to the abuse of children in its care'. He compellingly spells out the nature of this dysfunctional governance and suggests that any attempt to address abuse in the Catholic Church will be a waste of time unless its dysfunctional governance is corrected.

The claim in the media release about the new Catholic Professional Standards body is that it is an 'independent' agency, operating at arm's length from the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. If that is really the case, we can expect that Catholic Professional Standards will comprehensively address the Church's dysfunctional governance, and do all in whatever power it has to correct this. Anything less than this and it will be plain for all to see that Catholic Professional Standards is about no more than window-dressing and the Church is not serious about ending abuse.

Constructive outrage

Outrage is on my mind. It’s not that I am feeling outraged. But I’m wondering if outrage can be constructive. Will it help to preserve the world that I cherish and want to see prosper?

The context is a mild mannered piece I wrote last week about the axing of John Cleary’s Sunday Night ABC specialist religious radio program and its replacement by comparatively bland lowest common denominator programming.

A friend emailed me saying that she was ‘outraged’ by ABC management’s staged dismantling of specialist religious broadcasting. What is at stake is a deeper understanding of the role religion plays in politics, culture, war and peace. This is necessary to counter the rise of religious fundamentalism.

I asked myself how I can be comfortable to sit by and let this happen.  

​I was also thinking over the weekend about the Rohingya asylum seeker who attempted to set fire to a suburban bank in Melbourne, injuring scores of customers. Many people will be citing this as a justification for Australia’s cruel policies towards refugees. In fact the incident in the bank is a result of the policies, and mental health issues caused by our treatment of refugees today will cause havoc in the future.

It makes sense. The 21 year old was anxious that he would be deported to Myanmar and his mental health had deteriorated. Refugee advocate Sister Brigid Arthur said of people in his situation: ‘They’re scared about the process itself. I know many who are just collapsing under the weight of it.’

My point is that we need such cool headed and rational explanation to complement the vocal outrage of others. Vocal outrage is useful in that it calls attention to the muted rationality that identifies the purpose of protest action. But vocal outrage alone achieves nothing constructive.

It resorts to name calling and character assassination without follow through. There’s no point in shouting ‘Turnbull is spineless’ if we don’t, acting together in an unthreatening manner, also provide a set of thought out policy proposals that might help Turnbull develop spine.