Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden’s recent interview with Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” did not go well for him. The crucial moment occurred a few minutes in when Brzezinski read back Biden’s previous statements regarding the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh: “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she is talking about is real.”
She then asked whether Tara Reade’s claims should likewise be presumed true. “Look,” Biden responded, “from the very beginning, I’ve said believing women means taking the woman’s claims seriously.”
Oh no, Joe. That’s not what those words mean. To believe someone does not mean to “take their claim seriously.” It means to believe them. While Biden might desperately wish otherwise, it was clear during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings that “believe women” meant a great deal more than “take women’s claims seriously.” It meant challenging the very due process and presumption of innocence Biden would now like to enjoy.
Additionally, high-profile Democrats such as Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris have continued to support him. Naturally, accusations of hypocrisy have been loud. But all of this was so predictable, one wonders how Democrats could have played themselves so cluelessly. A dearth of introspection is one sure culprit, but this contradiction also demonstrates a serious flaw in how the left constructs its moral paradigms.
Empathy Often Disregards Justice
For a long time, the left has touted itself as the side of empathy. In “The Righteous Mind,” Jonathan Haidt attempts to distill the moralities of left and right to their fundamental values.
On the left, he finds primarily two: fairness (better defined as “equality of outcome”) and care (protection from harm). Oddly, the “care” value appears to be highly contingent. The left apparently cared little about the harm they caused Kavanaugh and his family. They didn’t seem to care when the media painted Nick Sandmann and the Covington Catholic High School kids as the face of racism in America. In general, there is little care for the left’s victims among the slavering outrage-addicts who constitute online cancel culture. What can explain this discrepancy?
In Paul Bloom’s “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” he argues that empathy, contrary to popular opinion, is not an unalloyed force for good. Of its defects, one of the most salient is that it can actually make people less just.
In one experiment, participants were divided into two groups. Both were shown recordings of an interview with a young girl living with a terminal illness and waiting for services of a (made-up) organization dedicated to improving the final years of such unfortunates. They were then asked if they would like to move her higher up the waiting list to receive relief sooner.
One group was encouraged to empathize with the girl, and the other was asked to remain objective. The former participants were far more likely to move the girl ahead in line, ignoring that the other children on the list would have had their own sad stories and now have to wait even longer for services.
Bloom compares empathy to a spotlight, highlighting one thing to the detriment of all else around it. Where the spotlight gets pointed may be influenced by forces including prejudice and what Noam Chomsky might describe as “victim worthiness.”
Feminists Reveal the Limits of Their Empathy
When Alyssa Milano, actress and prominent MeToo activist, stumbled through her futile attempt to reconcile “believe women” with “but not at the expense of giving men their due process,” it was so obvious this consideration had only just occurred to her because Biden is a man she actually cares about. “Believe women” and its consequent obliteration of the presumption of innocence was good enough when the consequences would be borne by men for whom she had no concern.
In 2017, Teen Vogue writer, Emily Lindin said as much on Twitter. “I’m actually not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs over false sexual assault/harassment allegations,” she wrote. “If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.”
Bari Weiss, writing for The New York Times, said of Lindin, “At least she had the guts to publicly articulate a view that so many women are sharing with one another in private. Countless innocent women have been robbed of justice, friends of mine insist, so why are we agonizing about the possibility of a few good men going down?”
From the advocates of empathy, there is a shocking lack of empathy for certain people, but Bloom predicts as much. With the empathy “spotlight” fixed so firmly on victims of sexual misconduct, there was little concern available for those who might be victimized by the removal of due process and social media kangaroo courts — that is, until Democrats stood to lose something from the application of their principle, forcing them to evolve rapidly.
Moral Issues Are Complex
The reliance on empathy also indicates an inability to think about moral issues in a sophisticated manner. Haidt points out that, speaking generally, the further right a person is, the more complex her moral system is likely to be, involving a greater number of moral considerations and values. It is not, as the left often claims, that conservatives do not care about reducing harm or inequality; it is just that those concerns are tempered by others.
For example, while Democrats were inspired to paroxysms of fury and grief by photos of children in border detention facilities, conservatives weighed those photographs against the need to close an obvious loophole in border control, as well as the detrimental effects of illegal immigration on American workers.
Likewise, those who objected to the “believe all women” injunction did so not because they hated women or failed to hate rape, but because they discerned its shortsightedness and potential for abuse.
When the left castigates the right for lacking empathy, they project their moral incompetence, attacking those who possess a more complex vision of what the good truly is. If anything, this episode has vindicated Bloom’s thesis. Trying to make empathy the cornerstone of any moral system is like trying to lay a foundation on quicksand. Perhaps even the left is learning this lesson, albeit very slowly.