Echoes in Death is the 44th book in the “In Death” series by J.D. Robb. I’m pretty sure that I’ve read them all. These are police procedural novels set in a near future with streamlined communication, cars that fly (sometimes, anyway, to get past traffic), and fun new slang. Eve Dallas is our tough heroine. Her husband, who we only know by one name, Roark, has a shady past but is currently (mostly) law-abiding. He’s a quintessential bad-boy hero, handsome and extremely wealthy.
I was annoyed by a passage at the beginning of Echoes in Death. My annoyance was supported by a nonfiction book I was reading at the same time, Against Empathy by Paul Bloom. So, I decided to post about both books at once in a kind of hodgepodge of review and essay.
Here’s what annoyed me. At a party, Eve refrains from punching a do-gooder whose cause is “reintegrating rehabilitated offenders into society” and who complained that “police were far too focused on punishment rather than reintegration.”
Here’s the rest of that conversation between Roark and Eve.
Eve: “You can bet your fine ass that if one of her ROs—as she called them—walked up, conked her on her whipped-cream head, and ran off with the glitters she was dripping in, she wouldn’t be lecturing me about how the law needs heart and compassion and forgiveness.”
Roark: “She’s never stood over a body or had to tell someone the person they loved is gone. And so has no idea the heart and compassion those duties require.”
That’s a tough-on-crime message that makes sense in the fictional world that Eve inhabits where she encounters at least one psychopathic killer in every book. One reason that this series has carried on for 44 books is that the psychopathic killers created by J.D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) are deliciously evil and it’s satisfying to see them brought to justice. But that’s not the real world.
In the real world, I learned from Against Empathy, psychopathy is ill-defined and (however you define it) psychopaths are rare.
In our world, things are much more complicated. At a time when it’s quite clear that our justice system is ineffective, way too expensive, and far from impartial (I recommend the books Just Mercy and The New Jim Crow), a knee-jerk rejection of a justice reformer in a fictional future feels like a callous and uninformed comment on the sorry state of the present.
The reason that Against Empathy talks about psychopaths, of course, is because we assume that empathy is required for moral behavior.
But, we’ve all seen how well that works when a parent yells at a child, “How would you like it if your sister hit you?” Speaking of empathy, imagine how you would feel if a giant twice your size grabbed you by the elbow and asked a question that sounded like a trap. Fear and defensiveness are far removed from empathy.
Of course, most of us do learn some empathy despite that common parenting technique, but is that why we don’t hit other people? There are many other things we learn around the same time. There’s a transactional element – if I don’t hit the other kid, she probably won’t hit me. There’s a social order element – my days are more pleasant when they are less chaotic and I’m willing to do my part to reduce chaos by not hitting other children (at least, until I get bored and the day needs some excitement). There’s a relationship element – I lose friends permanently when I hit them and whatever momentary release from frustration that I get isn’t worth that.
Plus, as it turns out, many psychopaths are capable of empathy – they are so effective at destroying people because they understand exactly what will work. J.D. Robb’s villains are masters at putting themselves in the shoes of the victim to maximize the horror.
“…the problems with psycopaths may have more to do with lack of self-control and a malicious nature than with empathy, and there is little evidence for a relationship between low empathy and being aggressive or cruel to others.” (p. 42)
One of the most hopeful moments, for me, in Against Empathy was the observation that people on the autism spectrum are often extraordinarily moral. When you know that empathy isn’t a helpful tool for you, you can substitute a rational commitment to behaving well toward others, relying on personal experience and moral teachings about what that looks like.
When Rick handed me Against Empathy, I was skeptical. I was prepared to hate it as patriarchal, hyper-rational posturing. But, it wasn’t. It fit right in with the year-long study that I finished in January of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong.
“Against Empathy” is somewhat overstating the case, a provocative title to sell books. The subtitle helps – “the case for rational compassion.” To get at the difference, Bloom parses out various meanings and contrasts them. For starters, the argument only works if you don’t use ‘empathy’ to mean “everything good, as a synonym for morality and kindness and compassion.” (p. 3) Instead, I found it most useful to think of empathy as feeling another person’s pain and compassion as understanding another person’s pain.
Effectiveness is one argument for compassion and against empathy. This is obvious in crisis situations like last week’s tragedy in Las Vegas. First responders and others who retained a capacity to help didn’t take on the fear and pain of the people around them. By staying a little detached, they led scared people to safer spaces and tended to wounds.
Another argument against empathy, that has relevance in our modern world, is that empathy is biased. We have more empathy for people who are more relatable. Starting, of course, with our relatives. But, branching out from there in ways that can be arbitrary and, often, unconscious.
It turns out that we can be manipulated into making astonishingly immoral decisions based on empathy.
In a famous study, researchers presented subjects an interview with and story about Sheri Summers, a young girl with a painful terminal illness. Those subjects who were primed to be empathetic voted, overwhelmingly, for Sheri to be moved higher on the waiting list for a pain-reducing treatment. From a more detached, compassionate perspective, of course, we recognize that other children, who we didn’t get a chance to learn about, should be treated fairly. Knowing the name and details of Sheri Summers doesn’t mean she’s more valuable than the other children, only that she’s more valued by us.
The kind of rational compassion that Karen Armstrong taught in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and that Paul Bloom argues for in Against Empathy works for me. With it, I can think systemically, act effectively, and step away when someone else is a better fit for the job at hand.
I can also step away when I need self-care, confident that I’m not the only person who can take on the needs for compassion in my community. My self-care includes reading distracting novels. In spite of the rocky start, Echoes in Death gave me all that I wanted in the way of a delightful diversion.