This is a thought experiment. Thought experiments have a long and checkered history in philosophy, and I cannot explore their nature or purpose in depth. (In fact, the protocol, propriety, and purposes of thought experiences are not entirely clear to me.) Suffice it to say that the features of a thought experiment need not be realizable, but they must be logically possible or at least imaginable. A thought experiment should also make some point not easy or possibly seen otherwise. Consider Plato’s myth, “The Ring of Gyges." It is unlikely anyone will ever become literally invisible, but we can well imagine what it would be like to be in this state and how it might affect one’s conduct.
What if someone invented a device that could convincingly capture the subjective experience of a person and then transfer those experiences into someone else’s consciousness? A movie called “Brain Storms” described such a machine, but did not capitalize on the empathy theme, but rather (not surprisingly) experiences of sex and—more importantly—of death. The empathy machine resembles Robert Nozik’s thought experiment involving the famous “experience machine,” which he concocted in order to argue for the deficiencies of one type of utilitarianism. That machine enables one to experience all the happiness one desired—all without any connection to a real, objective, external world—the world of things, people, nature, and so on. If one would not be hooked up to the experience machine at the expense of participation in the world of sense and embodiment, there is something deeply wrong with the axiology of utilitarianism. [i]
But let us revise Nozik’s thought experiment—turn it on its head, so to speak. The empathy machine records what is otherwise nearly inexpressible or at least inarticulate in the mouths of most of us. It records pain—pain and distress of every kind under the sun. When one is hooked up to the empathy machine, there is a radical shift from the third-person and second-person to the first-person; from propositional knowledge to experiential knowledge (or Russell’s “knowledge by acquaintance”); from hearing about pain and observing pain to being in pain and thus knowing it from the inside out. It is a shift from being-near to being-there.
The empathy machine does not generate pleasure, as does Woody Allen’s fictional “orgasmatron” from his film, “Sleeper.” Quite the opposite; it produces pain, but not pain in the sense of actual torture. Torture produces pain, my pain. I can, though, in this state identify and empathize with others similarly tormented. The empathy machine allows one to participate in the sensorium of another’s distress without physical torture or deprivation. Moreover, one can leave the empathy machine at will. It is not inflicted on anyone, but it can be chosen. For example, a husband can enter the empathy machine to experience the full force of his wife’s chronic illnesses—from the inside out. For a set period of time, he will feel all the muscle pain, weakness, fatigue, depression, despair, confusion, self-loathing, and shattered dreams. He cannot, by entering the machine, log her long years of discontent, but he can taste fully what these years have brought to her consciousness, both mentally and physically. He retains his identity, but he takes on crucial aspects of her experience subjectively through a kind of inter-subjectivity. In a sense, he takes on a secondary first-person identity (or at least experience). To invoke something from popular culture, consider a “Vulcan mind meld.” The character Spock in “Star Trek” is capable of tapping into another’s mind and (if I’m not mistaken) even experiencing that person’s feelings to some degree.
None of the four classical virtues (prudence, courage, self-control, and justice) or the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) directly implicate empathy, although love comes the closest. In order to love, one must reach out of oneself and, to some degree, reach into another person. One imagines what (say) chronic illnesses or a terminal illness or the loss of a child must be like. Then one can attempt to express an informed and heart-felt concern (that is, love) for that person in that state—however foreign it may be to one’s own first-person experiences.
I have not found very much on empathy as a virtue in the literature of moral philosophy. Of course, I may simply have missed this. But it seems that those interested in virtue theory would be the more likely to reflect on this state of being than would those explicating deontology or consequentialism. William Frankena, who is principally a deontologist who gives place to virtues in a secondary sense, speaks of the need for “benevolence” to motivate one to duty. In this connection, he cites statements by Josiah Royce and William James. First, Royce’s reflections:
What then is thy neighbor? He too is a mass of states, of experiences, thoughts and desires, just as concrete, as thou art. . . . Dost thou believe this? Art thou sure what it means? This is for thee the turning point of thy whole conduct towards him.[ii]
William James writes this:
This higher vision of an inner significance in what, until then, we had realized only in the dead external way, often comes over a person suddenly; and, when it does so, it makes an epoch in his history.[iii]
Both Royce and James, then, attribute to these empathic experiences a kind of moral epiphany, a quantum leap forward in moral awareness and moral virtue. Time spent in the empathy machine would increase this kind of awareness astronomically.
If one decided to embark on a voyage into another person’s pain, one would set oneself up in antithesis to any hedonic theory of value. Inside the empathy machine, pain is multiplied, not pleasure.
The Metaphysics of Persons and the Empathy Machine
For the experience machine to work, a particular ontology of persons must be in place. Any worldview that denies the reality of persons as genuine substances who endure over time and who experience life in the irreducibly first-person singular mode cannot employ this thought experiment to any benefit. Consider nondualism and Theravada Buddhism. Nondualism denies the reality of individual, separable selves. The only reality is Nirguna Brahman (God without qualities). For nondualists, such as Sankara, first-person awareness is ultimately maya or illusion. Enlightenment delivers one from such experiential limits through a “cognition of the infinite.” That is, one knows oneself as infinite—an experience that transcends any of the limits and suffering of maya-ridden existence. On this ontology, there is no reason to enter empathetically into the illusions of others. One’s own illusions are sufficient to drive one to a supposedly higher state of ultimate awareness—one in which there is no “other” whatsoever. Mutatis mutandus, Theravada Buddhism also denies the reality of the individual self, but through another metaphysic wherein there is precisely no self at all (instead of the singular, impersonal, and all-absorbing Brahman).
So, it seems that the empathy machine is only desirable as an exercise in gaining moral knowledge given some substantial view of the self in world of other selves. Otherwise, one cannot stipulate the objective existence of irreducible others who become the subject of one’s own experience. The nondualist and Buddhist would only gain a first-person knowledge of the illusion of the first person experience in another. They would not gain knowledge conducive to moral growth in virtue.
Those holding worldviews that affirm the existence of individual selves which can grow in moral knowledge should consider the implication of the empathy machine. One would need courage to enter this machine, even for a brief period of time. Likewise, one would need wisdom, since gratuitous (or at least misguided) suffering is obviously not its purpose; nor is the perverse gratification of masochists.
Consider an example of someone who should consider entering the machine. John, a bright and intellectual adventurous fellow, is told repeatedly by close friends and his spouse that he tends to be impatient and rude with slow-witted or mentally retarded people. They are often the butt of his jokes and he steers clear of them, even those who are apart of his own extended family. But John experiences something of a moral epiphany through an accident. After checking out of the supermarket with his friend, he makes a disparaging remark about the bagger, who obviously has Down’s syndrome. To John’s surprise and horror, the female bagger hears his comment, loudly announces that she is quite competent at her job (“I’m a good worker, even though I’m not like you!”), and then breaks into tears and runs away. Several strangers observe the scene and stare at John with scornful amazement. For a brief moment, John inhabits a new moral world—that of the other. He begins to wonder what it would be like have a mental handicap, to know it, and to live in world where most others do not share this condition.
John is thus a good candidate for some time in the empathy machine, with the dial set to “mental limitation.” But not only would John experience the diminishment of his prized wit and intelligence, he would also experience memories of being taunted as a child, being left out of social gatherings, and the experience of being ridiculed by a bright and insensitive man (like John himself).
If my argument is sound, anyone in reasonably good health and with the appropriate worldview (see above) and who lacks empathy should consider entering the empathy machine. Short of having such a machine, one can use one’s imagination to enter into the subjective pain of others. This is profoundly anhedonic; it is not done for any immediately felt pleasure, but for the purpose of growing in moral awareness, knowledge, and character growth.
[i] See Robert Nozick, “The Experience Machine” in Louis Pojman, Moral Philosophy.
[ii] William Frankena, Ethics 2nd ed. (Prentice-Hall, 1973), 69.