The ultimate solution to the race problem lies in the willingness of men to obey the unenforceable. Court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step towards the final goal which we seek to realize, genuine inter-group and interpersonal living. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right. A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities which are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible, inner law which etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love in mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation. True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations....
What is needed today on the part of white America is a committed altruism which recognizes this truth. True altruism is more than the capacity to pity; it is the capacity to empathize. Pity is feeling sorry for someone; empathy is feeling sorry with someone. Empathy is fellow feeling for the person in need — his pain, agony, and burdens. I doubt if the problems of our teeming ghettos will have a great chance to be solved until the white majority, through genuine empathy, comes to feel the ache and anguish of the Negroes’ daily life.---Martin Luther King, Jr. "Racism and the White Backlash" in (1967) Where Do We Go From Here. 106-7. [HT: Lionel McPherson]+
One central problem for those, like me, who defend the impartial rule of law is that the rule of law is often too partial. There are two central ways in which this becomes so: first, the law is itself the product of politics and, more often than not, promotes some partial interest or another. This is so because politics itself expresses the wishes of the more politically powerful. Second, even when the law itself is appropriately impartial, law enforcement, juries, and judges may well apply it partially or (recall MLK, Jr) simply abuse -- "the license...our society allows to unjust officials who implement their authority in the name of justice to practice injustice against minorities" -- their authority. On the other hand, the removal of discretion from police and judges altogether seems to result in barbarous law (as exemplified by the role of misdemeanors in California's Three Strikes Law). Such discretion is often also a judicious, countervailing force against the partiality and lack of expertise of politics.
In addition to often involving racial prejudice against the politically weak, the two central ways involve the problem of faction or in-group bias. In group-bias is often the product of too limited sympathy, or in modern terms, empathy. Empathy with all is generally thought impossible. As Paul Bloom puts it in a famous essay [HT L.A. Paul], "Empathy is biased...[and it] is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. " And one may well think that the solution to this problem is blocking the deployment of empathy. Here's Bloom:
Our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside. Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction. Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of vaccinating children and responding to climate change. These acts impose costs on real people in the here and now for the sake of abstract future benefits, so tackling them may require overriding empathetic responses that favor the comfort and well being of individuals today. We can rethink humanitarian aid and the criminal justice system, choosing to draw on a reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences.
Let's stipulate, for the sake of argument, that Bloom is right about this and that his (perhaps utilitarian) impartial consequentialism is indeed the morality worth having. Yet, Bloom's position also seems to beg the question: it simply assumes that the way we frame our challenges, the solutions we articulate, and the institutions which we are meant to tackle them are not populated by imperfect beings. Bloom is here like the advocate for the impartial rule of law while forgetting the role of faction/bias and politics in the framing and execution of laws. The very solution he offers presupposes that the underlying problem has been wished away. Moreover, while empathy may be biased, at least it is motivating. As Leslie Jameson puts it (in her response to Bloom), "Specificity is what makes empathy so powerful."
Bloom recognizes that he needs something in between impartiality and the bias of empathy. He calls it "non-empathetic compassion—a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others." The terminology is revealing of the conceptual problem: when the Romans had to invent technical terminology for philosophy, compassio was a literal translation of sympathy (συμπάθεια); both (can) mean fellow-feeling.* Leaving aside this awkwardness, Bloom wants a form of action-guiding "kindness or altruism" without the biased feelings for particulars. As he writes, "recognizing the misery caused by starvation, [and] be motivated to act accordingly." One can recognize this is possible, but there is no reason to think it is very likely. Bloom here is like the Kantian who wants us to be like an angel with a pure will acting from principle or duty, but can't really explain why we should expect this given the human nature we have.
The critics of empathy are right in their criticism, but there solution tends to assumes that the problem of faction/bias/empathy has been solved (and somehow disassociated from it). Lynn E. O'Connor and Jack W. Berry see all this clearly, and note that "The wiring for empathic reactions that allow us to form attachments is the foundation of compassion extended to both in- and out-group members." The problem is, and they are frank about it, that getting it extended to out-groups is costly and slow: it "may take years of practice."
In the essay I quoted above, King confronts such problems head-on without shrinking from articulating the extent of their tenacity. (The essay connects these with many relevant issues, including reflection on the enduring significance of the genocide of native Americans, and the role of intellectuals in promoting a racist ethos, etc.) At the end (partially quoted) King draws a distinction between an enforceable obligation -- roughly the public law-code and norms -- and unenforceable obligations, which concern "inner attitudes" and "expressions of compassion." As King's examples in context make clear (a father's love for child or affection of wife), the unenforceable obligations are both partial and (in a certain sense) non-material/spiritual (King draws a contrast with providing bread for the family). Not to put too fine a point on it, King believes that the problem of too much faction and institutions inhabited by the imperfect++ requires a spiritual transformation: we must become true Christians.**
In the passage, King's emphasis is primarily on brotherly love. And one may well think that King's solution fares no better than Bloom's. But that's not the extent of his prescription. Earlier in the essay, King had noted that a "sound resolution of the race problem will rest with those white men and women who consider themselves generous and decent human beings." That is to say, that before one can have the right sort of compassion, King thinks one needs the right sort of self-conception and this self-conception must have motivational efficacy. King goes on to argue that love provides such a motivation, but that it is a love that "must satisfy justice."+++ It is tempting to resist King on this point. Thinking of oneself as generous and decent is too often an act of self-delusion which covers over our complicity with and reinforces our inaction in the face of injustice(s). So, it is peculiar for him to advocate it precisely when he is most radical in his economic and policy prescriptions and un-blinkered about white opposition to his program.
Even so, I am reminded of one of the strangest passages in Adam Smith, which in the first instance may be thought to deviate from King's position, but I think illuminates it: "It is not the love of our neighbour, it is not the love of mankind, which upon many occasions prompts us to the practice of those divine virtues. It is a stronger love, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble, of the grandeur, and dignity, and superiority of our own characters." (The Theory of Moral Sentiments.) Smith, who is very concerned with sympathy-induced biases, here makes clear that neither duty nor (the injunction to) love (of) one's neighbor is sufficient; rather we need an elevated self-image to do the right thing for others.*** Rather than being a critic of this from the perspective of self-interest or efficiency, Smith is an advocate of developing incentives and social institutions/education that can cultivate such properly self-regarding selves. Selves, who are willing to uphold unenforceable obligations, can be trusted to uphold impartial law and do what is 'natural and right' and fight the inner demons which make each of us indifferent to the effects of our ordinary partiality. Paradoxically, in order to battle our too partial feelings for others we should become more partial to a transformed version of ourselves.****
+This post was prompted by musing on a conversation with Maria Blanco about the role of human imperfection in our institutions.
*Responding to and agreeing with Bloom, Peter Singer ties himself in similar knots: Bloom's 'non-empathetic compassion' becomes "“cognitive empathy” or “perspective taking” capacity—that is, the ability to see what life is like for someone else." [What Singer describes is what Adam Smith simply called 'sympathy,'] This form of cognitive empathy is capable of simultaneously seeing what it is like for someone else and somehow the same as "being able to see the world impartially" so one has "sufficient motivation to do a lot to improve the lives of strangers."
**It is unclear, in context, if he thinks this requires any dogma (such that Christ is our Saviour).
++This is a bit less clear from the quoted passage because it assumes -- against the evidence of the rest of the essay -- the "vigorous enforcement of civil rights."
+++How to do so is not a simple matter, and King is clear that often to give a person her due may mean giving her "special treatment."
***One may say that is Smith's version of true Christianity.
****To what degree an imperfect society can be trusted to develop the right sort of social institutions to promote such elevated selves is, of course, a tough challenge.