Reason, imagination and empathy - an extract from 'Creating Freedom'


16 May 2017

This is an extract from the book Creating Freedom: Power, Control and the Fight for our Future, by Raoul Martinez, described by the Guardian as ‘this year's essential text for thinking radicals’.

Broadly speaking, our cognitive biases channel our empathy towards specific, vivid, observable examples of human suffering, and away from stigmatised groups, while our social conditioning channels our empathy in directions that serve the interests of those with the power to do the conditioning, determining which groups are stigmatised and to what degree. Citizens are encouraged to empathise with their compatriots, soldiers with their unit, religious followers with members of their faith, and so on. The general pattern is that the political class, aided by a compliant media, exploit these biases to channel the public’s empathy where it is politically expedient. Reason and imagination can compensate for these biases. They can correct for our insensitivity to scale and distance and enable us to question the hierarchies of moral concern that we internalise from our culture.

Reason is amoral. Our ethical instincts are the raw material from which any moral system is built. They are what galvanise us to act in the face of injustice. Yet selective empathy can be as much a cause of cruelty as a solution to it. That is why acting in accordance with principles is so important. Without principles, our empathetic instincts are as likely to facilitate the process of dehumanisation as to restrain it. There is no formula for balancing instincts against the logic of moral reasoning – a tension between the two exists, as numerous thinkers have identified – but engaging with this tension rather than denying its existence, and employing all our faculties rather than limiting ourselves to potent emotions or cold logic, is perhaps the only path available to take us beyond the dehumanisation that blights our world.

Imagination has an important part to play. It transports us across time, class, gender and race. A story, painting or poem enables us to step into the shoes of someone we would otherwise find difficult to understand. A skilfully constructed narrative can lead us down a different life path, providing glimpses into the experiences of others – vagrant, criminal, oppressed, oppressor – and enable us to see how we might have turned out given a different set of influences and opportunities. It helps us to see the world through the eyes of others, to understand the rationale for different value systems, cultural norms and behaviour. By thinking about how things could look from another perspective, the ‘self’ doing the imagining is changed. As author Ian McEwan puts it, ‘Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.’

The empathy-enhancing value of using our imagination has stood up to experimental tests. In one study, people were shown a photograph of a young black man and asked to write a short account of a day in his life. Those who were instructed to put themselves in his shoes and look at the world through his eyes showed the most positive attitudes towards him, compared with a group who were asked to suppress their prejudices and a control group who received no additional instructions.

Empathy is malleable. Programmes to increase compassion and empathy, in both adults and children, have been shown to produce positive results. For instance, the charity Roots of Empathy periodically brings a baby from the local community into classrooms over the course of a year, and follows the child’s development while trying to understand what it is experiencing. Studies have shown that these empathy programmes significantly improve social and emotional skills, resulting in more caring behaviour, while reducing levels of stress, depression and aggression. Where it has been introduced, bullying and classroom disruption have been reduced.

Many steps could be taken to create a more compassionate world. The development of empathy owes much to our early experiences. On fostering empathy, Simon Baron-Cohen warns that ‘when we fail to nurture young children with parental affection, we deprive them of the most valuable birthright we can give them and damage them almost irreversibly’.But a nurturing upbringing is not enough. If we are to expand the categories of people to whom we extend our empathy, we have to engage our reason and imagination, individually and collectively. We have to question the loyalties, assumptions and values at the heart of our identity and the system that shapes it. As the activist and writer Daniel Voskoboynik puts it:

[T]he colours of morality sharpen over time. Arguments reasoned in the past appear unthinkable today. The ethical confusion that reigned around issues such as slavery, suffrage or the acceptance of Jewish refugees, seems absurd in a modern light. Dissident and ‘radical’ voices, marginalized at the time, become uncontroversial as years pass . . . We look back, often with certainty, confident that we have learnt the lessons and corrected our myopias. Yet the lessons are evasive. The ethical clarity afforded to the past rarely translates to the present. Our moral instincts persistently fail us.

They are meant to fail us. The political and economic edifice of which we are a part requires it. Unbounded empathy cannot coexist with the system that has so far prevailed. For one to flourish, the other must fade. Yet reason and imagination can tip the balance, closing the gap that separates us. We need to ask ourselves how it would it feel to be a refugee fleeing war – risking our life and the lives of people we love – in the hope of finding sanctuary and security abroad. Or how it would feel to have innocent friends and family murdered by a distant drone or have our country occupied by a foreign power that dictates our every move. Solutions to problems are not always clear, but justice demands that we never stop trying to see the world through the eyes of others, especially those who are vulnerable, oppressed and disadvantaged.

Politics is applied morality. It is easy to commit to abstract ethical ideals, far harder to apply them. Real life is messy and complicated. It is all too easy to find reasons to relinquish our fundamental moral principles. There is never any shortage of people telling us that in this instance, for this or that reason, it would be inappropriate, impractical or foolish to apply them. ‘Don’t be naïve’, we are admonished, ‘these are dangerous times. Ideals are luxuries that we simply cannot afford. In crisis, difference rules apply. We must be strong, vigilant, realistic. We must look after our own, secure our borders, defend our values. ’Narratives of fear accompany every war and crisis. Fear stifles empathy and elevates hate – fear for our safety, for our jobs, for our children; fear of what will happen if we don’t drop more bombs, lock more people up, keep more people out. Fear drives the cycle of inhumanity that makes good people support terrible things. There are always pressures to distance ourselves from certain groups by placing them in categories of a different status, but as soon as we allow ourselves to do this we have opened the door to insidious forms of dehumanisation.

"Described by the Guardian as ‘this year's essential text for thinking radicals’, Creating Freedom is Raoul Martinez's radical, revolutionary and highly provocative rethink of freedom"

Photo: Flickr/Jeff Gates

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