Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Too Much Monkey Business: The Complicated Intentions Behind Empathy and Sympathy

Continuing with our recent environmental finals theme, here's my Mosaics essay I wrote today.

-->In Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, Frans De Waal evaluates what makes particular primates have an understanding of self image. Scientists have tested this awareness of self in apes using mirrors, drawing a correlation between the ape's ability to recognize themselves in a mirror and their behavior towards other apes. Once these animals are conscious of themselves, they begin to understand the perception others have of them. J. J. Gibson argues that “the more complex an organism's interactions with its environment, the better it needs to know itself (68).” De Waal argues that the capacity for apes and humans to see “certain others as an extension of themselves” reflects an evolutionary need to gain acceptance (De Waal 69). De Waal assesses that with self knowledge comes other cognitive abilities including empathy, intentional deception, and reconciliation.

While cognitive empathy for others appears to be a socially rational response to the perceptions of others, De Waal argues that monkeys learn the capacity for understanding through an “emotional contagion.” Cognitive empathy enables individuals to become “curious about their internal state,” wanting to “search for clues about the others' feelings.” De Waal argues this is different from the “caring responses” displayed by other animals like elephants, dolphins, and lemurs which assist each other. While those animals appear to act out of necessity for cooperation with each other, apes and humans which are not necessarily directly dependent upon each other have a unique capacity for “higher levels of empathy” that drives their behavior(70).

Even with this unique ability to empathize with the feelings of others through the emotional contagion, De Waal questions whether this awareness of others translates to sincere feelings of selfless sympathy. He identifies imitation as an example where making “moral judgment” based on “perceived intentions” becomes difficult given that it initially occurs as a “mere behavioral copying without realization of the benefit” (72). 
 
Unfortunately, this “awareness of how one's actions come across and what the outside world is likely to read into them” leads apes to learn methods of intentional deception (75). De Waal observes that chimpanzees will often change facial expressions, pretend to be occupied, or even “act totally blind and deaf” when concerned about how their actions will be perceived by others.
Even when apes act with good intentions, the emotional contagion can make the distinction between sympathy and empathy difficult to discern. Understanding an individual's pain for how it effects them can lead an individual to make the rational decision to alleviate that pain. Empathy, leads an individual to feel the pains of another for themselves, risking simply becoming satisfied from being able to acknowledge the pain. These “innate responses” to the feelings of others range in results from simple apathy towards the feelings of another to extremes like Schadenfreude, where individuals actually take pleasure in the pain of others.


De Waal argues that in the judging animal's intentions based on anecdotes risks over-interpretation. Our value placed on intelligence makes us believe the “myth of rational man,” thinking that our “reasoning capacities drive behavior” (78). De Waal argues that cognitive empathy for others should not be compared to the “working of a cold-blooded computer.” The brain is not divided neatly into “thought and feeling” and in order for an individual to truly care for another “depends on a mosaic of factors ranging from rational and cognitive to emotive and physiological” (79). Understanding why these caring capabilities appear in other species requires an understanding of how animals are dependent upon each other. De Waal notes that while some animals are willing to help others based on “mutual assistance” from the group, animals like a tiger “need no assistance” and “has no urge to provide it to others.” Human primates are comparatively helpless on their own and therefore enter into “elaborate contracts of mutual assistance”(80).

The questions of the possibility for cognitive empathy clearly has larger complications when applied to social interactions among humans instead of apes. Can a reconciliation between self interest and group interest successfully occur when such high levels of distrust exist? Does the cognitive empathy effectively encourage good behavior that actually results in a fair relationship or does our needs inevitably define our treatment of others? Can the needs of another be assisted in a way that is selfless? How can we understand others in a way that treats others as partners rather than as mechanisms for our needs? Is it possible for individuals relate to one another without making their understanding about themselves instead of those whom they think they relate with?