Bat Kid and “Affluenza”: The Moral Psychology of Empathy

What do Bat Kid and “Affluenza” have to do with each other? They both demonstrate what recent psychological research says about the function and limits of empathy. 


The New York Times’ “Room For Debate” feature has brought “affluenza” back into the conversation.

Remember? A Texas judge gave a lenient sentence to a wealthy 16-year old, Ethan Couch, who killed four people while driving drunk. Rather than the 20-year prison sentence the prosecution had asked for, the judge gave Couch 10 years probation and sent him to a luxury rehab facility at the cost to his parents of $450,000. The defense had argued that Couch suffered from “affluenza,” which means, apparently, being too rich to know right from wrong. The defense’s psychologist, G. Dick Miller, seems to think that Couch’s rich parents raised him “without ever setting limits” such that he never learned that “actions have consequences.”

The blogosphere and cable TV erupted with incredulity and contempt. And rightly so. The miscarriage of justice here is so egregious it defies belief.

But it has not been satisfactorily explained why being raised rich could result in bad morals. The case reminds one of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb who Clarence Darrow argued in 1924 merited diminished responsibility for killing a neighborhood boy because they were raised by nannies, read debasing detective fiction, and were ignored by their rich parents. Is there some reason that being raised rich causes you to lack proper moral concern for others?

Paul Piff, at University of California, Berkeley may have the answers. The literature on the relation between class and moral judgment, as well as recent research by Piff and his collaborators, suggests that one’s class status will affect the degree of one’s feelings of empathy. Empathy, as defined by social psychologist Daniel Batson, means “a set of congruent vicarious emotions . . . that are more other-focused than self-focused, including feelings of sympathy, compassion, tenderness, and the like.” Studies demonstrated that high-status participants, who self-reported as being upper-class socioeconomically or who were designated as “rich” or “high status” in the experimental setting, were more likely than low status participants to cheat, lie, fail to stop their cars for pedestrians at a crosswalk, take candy from children, and show little or no empathy or respect for persons of low-status.

Piff theorizes that low-status people cultivate empathy and pro-social behavior because they figure they may require the help of others in the community in the future. High-status individuals are more insulated from needing the help of others and so do not place a premium on empathy or pro-social behavior. They can afford to flout the norms of the community, while low-status individuals cannot for fear of losing the benefits of the collective. So perhaps because he was rich, Couch lacked an appropriate amount of empathy to ensure pro-social behavior or inhibit anti-social behavior. This suggests we might want to make policy changes to increase empathy during child development in order to maintain ethical behavior across all classes of society.

But recently, other researchers have claimed that empathy is not necessarily an unvarnished good thing. Remember Bat Kid, the feel-good story for November? The Make-A-Wish Foundation wanted to grant the wish of 5-year old Miles Scott who was in remission from leukemia and wanted to be Batman for a day. The foundation sent out a message on Twitter and before long the authorities and the general public of San Francisco had rallied around helping this boy in such numbers and with such enthusiasm that one simply had to be impressed and buoyed by the display of human empathy. Someone lent a Lamborghini to serve as the Batmobile. Miles was dressed in Batman-like armor and led around the city by a Batman impersonator. Miles saved a damsel in distress (a volunteer) tied to a fake bomb, foiled a bank robbery by the Penguin and the Joker, and was given a key to the city by Mayor Ed Lee as 20,000 people gathered to watch.

Despite the good that was done for Miles Scott by this Internet mediated outpouring of mass empathy, this case simultaneously demonstrates the pitfalls of the human capacity for empathy. As psychologist Paul Bloom recently wrote in the New Yorker magazine, empathy evolved as a reaction to concrete and local stimuli. We are good (or pretty good) at rallying around an identifiable victim like Baby Jessica, who captivated the nation in 1987 after falling into a well. But we are quite capable of ignoring and displaying no empathy for large numbers of victims on the other side of the world if they do not trigger our evolved emotions. We might pay attention to specific, media-friendly emergencies in other countries and at home, but we can easily ignore long-standing and apparently intractable problems because they do not present an identifiable victim to pique our emotions.

Where is the empathy to motivate us to help the 20 million American children who go to bed hungry each night? Where is the empathy for the hundreds of thousands of people who die from leukemia each year? As Stalin reportedly said, “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” Around 1900 people died during Katrina and the aftermath, but in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and subsequent tsunami 300,000 people are estimated to have died. That’s 150 times more people. Do we feel 150 times more empathetic? Empathy is simply not “designed” by evolution to be triggered by statistical abstractions.

By way of explanation, consider the following thought experiment, offered by Princeton philosophy professor, Peter Singer. Suppose there was a child drowning in a pond right in front of you. You could save the child but it would ruin your $200 pair of shoes. Would you save the child? Most people would say yes.

But change the case a bit. Suppose you get a letter from a respected and efficient international aid organization that says you could cure ten children of fatal but preventable diseases if you donated $200. Would you donate? You may say yes. You may say no. But the fact is that we as a society do not generally donate to international aid organizations as readily as we’d help save a child right in front of us.

Joshua Greene, a psychology professor at Harvard, and author of Moral Tribes, theorizes that we have evolved an empathic emotional capability for concrete situations and for situations that affect our in-group loyalties, but we simply lack the empathic emotions necessary for donating to the international aid agency in the thought experiment because, in part, our ancestors were never faced with the possibility of helping people on the other side of the planet. Furthermore, any philosophical or principled reason that you may come up with to justify your not donating to international aid organizations, Greene says, is just a post-hoc rationalization for your lack of a motivating emotion to help.

In this treatment of moral reasoning as post-hoc rationalization of emotions, Greene is in line with psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who has influentially argued that most moral judgments or conclusions are caused by unconscious processes and drives, and that moral reasoning is usually (although not always) co-opted to look for reasons that would justify the way we already feel. According to Haidt’s metaphor, the human self is like the combination of a monkey on an elephant’s back: the elephant (the unconscious) goes where it wants and the monkey (consciousness) says, “I meant to do that.”

Haidt says we usually reason in a way biased toward how we already feel, like a lawyer building a case rather than as a judge seeking evidence and reasons objectively. And this is so even if it seems to us that we are reasoning objectively. For example, anti-abortion advocates claim to judge that abortion is wrong because they believe life begins at conception and pro-choice advocates claim to judge that abortion is not always wrong because they believe life does not begin at conception. According to Haidt, however, anti-abortion advocates believe that life begins at conception because they think abortion is wrong and pro-choice advocates believe life does not begin at conception because they think abortion is not always wrong. It’s not that you suspect aid organizations are inefficient ways of helping those in need, it’s not that you only owe moral consideration to persons of the same nationality; it’s not any of these possible facts or any philosophical principle: it’s quite simply that you do not feel like doing it.

So what should we do given the apparent need for empathy and its evident limitations? As a policy matter, we may want to try to improve children’s empathic capacities where they exist—in relation to concrete, identifiable victims or situations. But when we come to the limits of empathy we must, Bloom says, count on our reason. “A reasoned, even counter-empathetic analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences is a better guide to planning for the future than the gut wrench of empathy,” Bloom says. “Empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.” But with Bloom we are in a bit of a catch-22 because conscious reasoning may be our weakest organ.

Indeed, our evolved intuitions and emotions for the most part guide us in moral behavior. However, what makes good actions good is not that we have evolved to have them. The only thing that could make them good is that they follow from the dictates of our best reasoning. Just because something is natural does not mean we should promote it. Just because science tells us something is the case, we cannot immediately conclude that it ought to be the case. After all we have old tribal emotions that are out of line with our considered commitment to Enlightenment egalitarianism, such as our preference for our in-group and our preparedness (according to Harvard’s Implicit Bias Test) to exclude as the out-group, people who are slightly different in terms of race, gender and lifestyle choices. We have these tribal reactions even if most of us usually tamp them down. And, again, we also seem to lack motivating emotions when it comes to helping people who, it stands to reason, we are morally obligated to help.

So what are we to do? In those cases where we have the wrong emotions or no motivating emotions at all, we are going to have to use conclusions from conscious reasoning processes to motivate us to do the right thing. That’s Bloom’s suggestion, but according to Haidt and Greene, that’s going to be a difficult proposition, as it involves our weak monkey reigning in our strong elephant.