Joaquina Pires-O’Brien, editor of the internet magazine PortVitoria, interviews the Spanish philosopher Fernando Genovés about his latest book La ilusión de la empatía. Ponerse en el lugar del otro y demás imposturas morales (Provisional English title: The Illusion of Empathy. To put oneself in the place of another and other moral impostures).
Dr. Fernando Rodríguez Genovés is professor of philosophy at the University of Valencia currently on sabbatical. He is a literary and film critic, author of many essays and published books, a blogger and one of the founders of the monthly electronic magazine El Catoblepas, published since 2002, to which he is a frequent contributor.
Joaquina Pires-O’Brien (JPO): Why do you state in your book that the popular notion of ´to put oneself in the place of another’ is a moral imposture?
Fernando Rodríguez Genovés (FRG): I chose the term ‘imposture’ in order to air some issues that I detect in the phenomenon of empathy, more specifically, in the proposition ‘to put oneself in the place of another’, since it describes precisely a topic that deals not only with moral attitudes but also with places and theorizations. I won’t deny that such terminological choice also invites to an intellectual complicity with Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s famous book Intellectual Impostures (UK edition, published in the USA as Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science).Empathy represents, in effect, an intellectual imposture, for in addition to be an idea that is scientifically absurd and theoretically unfeasible, it constitutes, first and foremost, a huge artifice, not far from pretence, and as stated in the very title of the essay, it is also not free from illusion. There are optical illusions but there are also illusory beliefs. Empathy is one of them.
JPO: What does moral philosophy says regarding compassion and the need to understand our fellow citizens?
FRG: There is not a single agreed moral philosophy about this, but several diverse ones. Those that are directly linked to our theme lean primarily towards amour-propre, self-care and self-respect, starting from the ones we could call ‘altruists’, that is, those which place the other ahead —or above— the personal I. Compassion is a human instinct, just like aggression and sexuality. Therefore, it is not a moral value in itself, only a natural propensity that people have, which, as such, must be governed and contained by reason. What happens is that, suddenly, some concepts acquire a theoretical and/or ideological veneer that literally changes their meaning, prompting an opportune criticism. This happened with the notion of ‘compassion’, as well as with the meaning of ‘understanding’, for ‘understanding the other’ should not necessarily lead to agree with everything someone says, nor having to patronize, to adopt or ‘to put in someone’s place ’, but only, in the first instance, to understand the reasons by which someone acts.
JPO: Could you give an example of why individual responsibility and self-respect are hardly compatibles with the proposition ´to put oneself in the place of another’?
FRG: Moral responsibility means the ability to take charge of one’s life and to account for one’s actions. Due to its personal nature, responsibility (like identity) is not transferable. Thus, ‘to account for the other’ as a norm is tantamount to interfere with people’s autonomy, to take away their voice, wanting to constrain them intellectually and morally as under-age. Understanding the others means to take them seriously and to respect them, that is, to do nothing that could prevent them from freely exercising their own will. This is the best way to build a society of free and responsible individuals, neither by bringing interventionism and protectionism to the sphere of emotions, nor or to an area as specific as ethics.
JPO: Are psychologists wrong in overvaluing the role of the individuals’ social relations?
FRG: This is another case where it is not prudent to generalize. Not all psychologists hold the same viewpoint on the subject of empathy. We noticed in this professional group the same thing that occurs in many others: they are severely conditioned by fads. In the area of psychology, Gestalt and psychoanalysis ruled yesterday; today, it is ruled by currents inspired by emotional intelligence and empathy. At the same time, one needs to take into account that at the fringe of the therapeutic practices of psychologists, there is a wide spectrum of new professions and new trends — such as those linked to coaching, self-help, communication techniques, and so on — which function by the use of clichés and very elementary practical models, seeking first and foremost to attract public sympathy. Moreover, nothing is more captivating than empathy. Whoever works in a field that involves controlling behaviour, hardly remains immune to the dominant currents; and let us not forget that contemporary Western societies, which are self-designated ‘welfare societies’, are marked by extremely community-orientated values — security and overprotection, solidarity and philanthropy and the proliferation of rights — whilst they are less inclined to risk, to entrepreneurship, to free competition, and to extend liberty to a greater number of human activities.
JPO: In his book The Revolt of the Masses, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset referred to hyperdemocracy as a disease of democracy. Do you see any similarity between hyperdemocracy and the apotheosis of empathy?
FRG: The analysis carried out by Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses, not only remains valid but has also been corroborated further by the expansion of the meaning of the word ‘mass’. The inertia of the mass tends to transform society in a totum revolutum, an amorphous conglomeration where individualities and particularities are firstly blurred and then wiped out. A ‘hyperdemocracy’ is the best-suited place to celebrate the apotheosis of empathy. It has no hierarchies, categories or meritocracy; according to it, the simplest comparisons are hateful. Anyone can take any place, not by merit or hard work, but by one’s own right. Status and places are inevitably interchangeable: lessons are given by the students, rather than by the teachers; the division of power, the main condition of the liberal society, has been reduced to a relic of the old political system; in the realm of the family, parents are dominated by the whims of their children; existing social networks allow unbound identities: today you can be someone and tomorrow someone else; and so on. If the illusion of empathy could become a reality, we would witness the apotheosis of moral egalitarianism.
JPO: What are the dangers of tolerance and acceptance without limits in the family?
FRG: In Western societies, a large section of the present generation of parents suffer from a noticeable guilt complex and a responsibility deficit, which prompt them to overprotect their children (and all of this, open brackets, when the couples decide to make descendants, for the drop in the birth rate in Europe has become a worrisome demographic problem which could become disastrous both socially and culturally). On the one hand, parents have renounced the traditional mission of educating children, transferring this task to the school. On the other hand, they permit and tolerate everything, for they are afraid of ‘traumatizing them’ with the smallest rules of behaviour. The following can be noted in the above mentioned situations: in the first case, we have teachers that put themselves in the place of parents; and in the second case we have parents who fail to guide their children — they neither tell them off nor do they punish the faults they commit — for in their angst to understand them, they put themselves in their place.
JPO: You cited the philosopher Bernard Williams who pointed out the ‘heresy of the anthropologists’ in relation to the theoretical proposition that moral judgements have no universal value, and therefore it would be inadequate for one society to condemn or to criticise the values of another. What kind of problem does this type of cultural relativism represents to the understanding and discernment of things?
FRG: Mainly one: relativism makes it impossible to understand things. In fact, it does not even aspire to such an objective. By its own nature, the process of understanding demands distancing from the reality one seeks to understand. This is particularly so in the sphere of practical knowledge such as ethics, psychology, law, and so on. I am going to give you an example: a judge cannot pass a sentence in a murder case by putting himself in the place of the murderer. In the case of cultural anthropology, to which Williams referred, there is no such thing as superior or inferior cultures, civilization or barbarism. According to that assertion, all cultures are equally ‘respectable’, what changes the strict meaning of the term ‘respect’. From such a perspective, it is only possible to know the societies from inside, and never from the outside. And this is an absurdity, for if things were analysed in this fashion, the historical and sociological investigation would become impossible: for no one can be everywhere at the same time. The political and ideological correspondence of this is no less sinister. Relativism only stirs feelings without leading to any understanding; it does not propose comprehension but only acceptance. It is worth reminding that empathy is also a manifestation of relativism. To put it in economic terms, empathy aspires to change the present monetary system back to a barter system.
JPO: You also cited the philosopher Elias Canetti (1905-1994) in whose book Crowds and Power (1960) he talks about the anxiety and the pain resulting from an incomplete and frustrated experience and how the weight of individuality becomes too much to bear, driving the individual to seek relief by integrating in the group. Do you think that Canetti’s explanation, which was inspired in the masses of the ‘20s and ‘30s in Germany and Austria, is true for the masses of today?
FRG: Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power is a product of its time, but due to its condition of an outstanding analysis, it has a universal and everlasting dimension, where the particular coexists with the generality of the topic under scrutiny. The same thing can be said of Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Both works have helped us to understand that the power of the masses increases proportionally with the eclipse of individualities, the suppression of distances and the extension of levelling in a given society. In this sense, Canetti’s Crowds and Power provides an enlightened description of the relentless ambition of the masses for levelling through a process of absorption of people that end up nullifying them as autonomous beings. Summarizing, the advance of the masses leads to the integration to the whole, at the cost of the integrity of each individual. The proposition ‘to put oneself in the place of another’ owes a lot to the ‘levelling with the other’ that Canetti identified.
JPO: Does an individual lose his identity as a physical person when he joins the mass?
FRG:From the very moment that an individual is ‘swallowed’ by the masses, he loses his own identity as a physical person and as a moral person. Physically, the individual is no longer a complete and autonomous being but only a part of a whole, an additional piece in a set, a mere strand of ‘the social fabric’. And note this: within the group, or inside the mass, the individual doesn’t act, he simply let himself to be carried away, he drifts in the current; he does not decide, he obeys ; he does not speak, he shouts. To illustrate the group’s homogeneity, whenever the group wishes to manifest itself, they usually speak ‘with one voice’. Here is the collectivist ideal. Finally, let us remember that Octavio Paz used to refer to the State as ‘El ogro (monster) filantrópico’. They are many, the voices that put the notions of ‘philanthropy’ and ‘empathy’ on the same plane.
JPO: At the end of your book you show funny situations in relation to ´put oneself in the place of another’ in television comedies and in Hollywood movies, whose characters are always persons we would consider reasonable and intelligent. What is the purpose of this Appendix in your essay?
FRG: The essay has a final Appendix, which I entitled ‘Empathy Taken as a Joke’. Its purpose is to show how the proposition ‘to put oneself in the place of another’ ended up as a common place —a ‘joker’! — that keeps reappearing not only in certain professional and academic spheres but also in the media and in everyday talk. Cinema and television (including comedies and animated cartoons) did not stay at the margin of such influence, for they often reveal it bot explicitly and implicitly. Comedy, in particular, is the perfect genre to take everyday situations to their limit, as well as to their absurdity. Perhaps some readers will find such Appendix more clarifying than the preceding analytical chapters, to understand the great folly that empathy signifies. Satire and irony, for their habitualness, can be more persuasive and efficient than bold discourses and rigorous explanations.
JPO: How can people’s understanding be improved by the use of reason?
FRG: In relationships, and in the understanding of other people, sentiment is not only necessary but also indispensable. We are not machines, but rational beings who have a heart. However, the path to understanding is not sentiment, but reason. We love, appreciate or hate others not because of any rational reflexion, but because of emotional experiences, which condense as either affection or disaffection. Thus, everything has its place and everyone has their space. I distrust theories prone to intellectual mixtures and practical cocktails; in other words, anyone who puts the concepts of reason and sentiment at the same level, to the point of equalizing them, exchanging one notion for another as it suits their interest.
JPO: I would like to thank you for giving this interview to PortVitoria. Thank you and good luck with your new book!
FRG: Thank you very much for your kindness.
Fernando Genovés new book La ilusión de la empatía is available from Amazon, via the following links:
Acknowledgement: Carl O’Brien, reviser
This interview is a reprinted from the internet magazine PortVitoria, dedicted to the Hispano-Lusophone communities around the world. You can download this interview in Spanish and Portuguese by going to: