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% Unconditional empathy

Would you agree to experience some pain if you were paid for it and after it your memory was erased? (Assume no harm of any kind – only pain without any long-lasting effects.)

To some people (like me some time ago) the solution seems simple. If you agree to the offer it's variant A, and if you don't it's variant B:

  • Initial state: you feel fine, you have 0$
  • State A: you feel fine, you have 10$
  • State B: you feel fine, you have 0$

A is clearly preferable to B, so you must choose to experience pain and have your memory erased (i.e. do what leads to A). Problem solved. Where is pain in this analysis? Well, nowhere, but that's the beauty of the argument – you can disregard intermediate steps and simplify the problem. Oh, and those who give different answers simply can't think rationally, they start imagining experiencing that pain and let emotions cloud their judgement. If they were truly consequentialist, it wouldn't even occur to them – because all they'd look at would be final states, or consequences, and consequences of any act are the only things that matter when evaluating an act.

In fact, I went even further – I said that I'd agree to experience any amount of pain for any money (even 1¢) any amount of times as long as this wasn't taking my time / interfering with my life otherwise.


What I also remember is why I held this position. It wasn't conceived as a way to get easy money – rather, it was a reaction to my dad's answer to the same question. To be more precise,

  • first I randomly asked my dad whether he'd agree to experience pain for money if later it was erased from his memory

  • then dad said “of course not”

  • and only then I decided that a) dad was stupid and didn't have any arguments against it, b) wasn't even a consequentialist, and c) but I wasn't like him, and I would agree, because hey, easy money

This bit is important. I didn't randomly think “getting tortured could be a good way to make money, I wish somebody offered that deal to me”; I had to decide that in order to maintain consistency. In reality I thought that anybody who wouldn't agree was stupid, but I wasn't wishing “oh if only somebody would come and offer me this choice”.

I'm not saying there is a contradiction here – however, generally, if you would choose A over B but don't want to have to choose at all, it strongly suggests that A and B both aren't good. Getting tortured for 1¢ is bad because you're getting tortured; refusing to get tortured for 1¢ is bad because then you're not a consequentialist. (And never being offered the choice is very different from being offered the choice and stubbornly refusing to take the only sensible option.)


The Last Psychiatrist writes about the following question asked on some radio show by some intern:

if you could rape a girl, but then give her this magic drug that left her with no memory of the rape, would you do it?

It's almost the same question as the previous one. If you think that actions don't matter but consequences do, you'd rape the girl; if you're thinking with your emotions (or the part of your brain that automatically screams “BAD” at anything that has “rape” in it), you wouldn't. What has changed – apart from “torture” being replaced with “rape” – is that now you're not the person being tortured.

In responding to the intern, Ron (the host) made an obvious point, and before I make it I want you to clear your mind and imagine yourself acting out this scenario. You're a man, on top of the woman, finishing, pulling out, and then giving her the drug. She blinks, looks at you like she forgot what she was going to say, and goes back to ringing up your order.

Got that image? She doesn't remember anything. She's perfectly happy, no harm done at all. The point Ron made was, “so if a couple of my boys from the west village rape you in the ass, and inject you with the drug, that's ok?” He used the word “fucking” to modify every noun in that sentence, but I'm paraphrasing.

Some of you are right now experiencing a weird disconnection. Like the intern, that obvious thought simply hadn't occurred to you. And it wakes you up to the reality of the rape, of course this rape is wrong. Forcing you to imagine yourself as the victim makes the scenario more real, more vivid.

Oh, but it had occured to me, and what I had concluded wasn't “but I'd hate this to happen to me, so it's wrong!”. It was “yep, I'd be okay with it happening to me, and if I feel mildly displeased with the prospect that's because I'm not fully rational either – but you, you are so much less rational than me”.


And now let's see how it all falls apart.

The same logic allows us to torture old ladies who live alone:

  • Initial state: an old lady lives alone
  • State A: a week later, the old lady is dead (and you have tortured her meanwhile)
  • State B: a week later, the old lady is dead (and you haven't done anything to her)

In fact, it allows anything:

  • Initial state: planet Earth
  • State A: heat death of the universe (and you did <something> 10^1000^ years ago)
  • State B: heat death of the universe (and you didn't do <something> 10^1000^ years ago)

And thus naive consequentialism is useless as an ethical theory. (Not consequentialism in general, mind you – just naive consequentialism.)

What now?


We have a way to prevent such mistakes, to avoid doing bad things even when we think they aren't bad. It's empathy.

Having empathy doesn't make it impossible to do something bad, it just makes it slightly harder. With empathy in place, you have to actually be sure that you're doing a good thing when you're harming other people – otherwise you won't be able to do it. Even if you couldn't think of a reason why you shouldn't do the bad thing, you'd still be reluctant.

Here's a laundry list of things empathy can prevent/mitigate:

But most people aren't psychopaths, they do have empathy. How could've empathy prevented slavery?

And the answer is: while most people do have empathy, there are situations when it can turn off. Psychopaths can turn it off at will; for most people empathy depends on proximity (that's why you'd spend effort to save a drowning child personally but won't bother to donate money to save a child in Africa), or being able to see the other person (which is why articles about starving children always have photos of those children); but even if you know the other person and they're near you, the empathy can still turn off in presence of a justification. Take the rape scenario – the details of how the magic drug works don't matter, what matters is that saying “assume she'll be given a magic drug” is perceived as “assume that in this scenario you can disregard rape”, and once the brain thinks it can disregard, the empathy is off.

More scenarios:

  • You can be a perfectly nice person and still own slaves without feeling bad about yourself, if you believe that black people are inferior. Same for Nazis/Jews.

  • Similarly, after making that sexist joke you could be worried about upsetting someone, but, luckily, women aren't quite people (they only think about shoes and other girly things), so you can keep laughing.

  • And if you don't think that women aren't quite people, you can still tell them that they are wrong to be upset because everything you said is true. How convenient that you don't feel bad about upsetting someone if they're wrong to be upset, isn't it. (I'm not even talking about the opposite thing feminists have about men and the patriarchy.)

  • Homophobes are savages, so their feelings are completely irrelevant. Would be really nice if they all were fired from their jobs, too. (Yes, I'm talking about Brendan Eich.) Even if some of them aren't savages, they are still evil people who deserve it.

  • Your child doesn't want to play violin, but it's alright, they'll thank you later – and they hate the summer camp so far but they'll probably start liking it after a while, so it's okay too.

  • Another instance of “you'll thank me later” being an effective justification: your boyfriend has social anxiety, but you keep pushing him to talk to people more and you always remind him that if he keeps ordering pizza online (and not by phone) he'll be stuck with his fear of people forever. This eventually leads to your boyfriend breaking up with you, which is totally not your fault – you wanted him to become better, after all.

  • You told me something scary, and then it turned out that it was a joke. Yes, I was scared for a while, but since it was temporary (you admitted that it was a joke in about half an hour), you don't feel guilty.

  • Finally, you told your sister that there are worms living in her gut, and if if she doesn't believe you she can google it. She believed you, and was disgusted and sort of upset afterwards. You laughed at her for being silly and so bothered about something that shouldn't bother her.

The point isn't that you can't boycott homophobes for being homophobes. The point is that if your empathy didn't automatically turn off, you probably wouldn't have, despite still thinking that homophobia is bad. And before you say “then maybe empathy isn't so good after all”, consider that the very same empathy would've prevented homophobes from hating gays, too. Yes, you could make an Official List Of Acceptable Targets – homophobia is bad, hating homophobes is good – but the message you're sending to the next generation is “it's okay to hate people when your hatred is justified”, and this is exactly the reason why homophobia and all other prejudices can exist. The only way out is to promote unconditional empathy. Everything else is just a symptom.