‘Empathy Machines’ by Olivia Rosane

— Melissa Mesku

The truth is that every time I pass a person sleeping or begging on the streets, I am terrified by the thought of what would happen if I did truly empathize with them: If I, even for a moment, felt the precariousness of their life as my own, wouldn’t I have to offer them more… Wouldn’t it demand that I offer everything I have?

The answer to Olivia Rosane’s rhetorical question is yes. Empathy, that noble capacity of ours, is like water: it sustains life; it also has the power to drown.

A landmark 2015 book by Larissa MacFarquhar explored the lives of people who answered yes, people who opened the floodgates on their capacity to empathize and radically altered their lives in accord. The title—Strangers Drowning—refers to the classic question in ethics, of whether or not you would risk your own life to save a stranger from drowning. The title, of course, could also be interpreted to mean that it is instead the extreme do-gooders out there who are the strangers. Isolated from the rest of us by having taken it too far, they find themselves drowning in the sea of their own empathy. MacFarquhar wrote: “The life of a zealous do-gooder is a kind of human sublime—by which I mean that, although there is a hard beauty in it, the word ‘beautiful’ doesn't capture the ambivalence it stirs up. A beautiful object—a flower, a stream—is pleasing in a gentle way, inspiring a feeling that is like love. A sublime object, such as a mountain or a rough sea, inspires awe, but also dread. Confronting it, you see its formidable nobility, and at the same time you sense uncomfortably that you would not survive in it for long.”

Rosane’s is a rational fear, for the logical conclusion of empathy is extreme. The emotional jump from, say, feeling for a person you see sleeping on the street, and opening your home to the homeless, is not all that broad. To feel for that person and not open your home to them is barbaric—and altogether normal.

Writing for Real Life, Rosane crafts an incredibly nuanced portrait of contemporary empathy and its bedevilments. From an empathy museum to the teleology of VR, from civility to competition over moral outrage, Rosane’s is the strongest and most illuminating writing on empathy since MacFarquhar’s. We need it. Confronted as we are by extremes both barbaric and normal, questions of ethics and empathy are getting less rhetorical with each passing day.

Real Life