Feeling Bad for a Robot

There was a video which went round Facebook recently showing a rather realistic four-legged robot being able to navigate obstacles and uneven terrain. The video also showed a man kicking the robot which stumbled and managed to struggle back on its feet. There was an interesting comment on the thread which went:

I know it’s a robot. But I felt bad that they kicked it. Lol

and this comment has gotten over 2500+ likes.

(Jump to 0:27 to see the man kicking the robot)

Now why is that? Why do we feel bad when it’s just a robot being kicked to the ground? I think this illustrates very well my own point which I’ve made before that empathy is largely an illusion created by our own minds, an habituated instinctive reaction to certain types of visual stimuli upon which we project and impose a similar consciousness or mind to ours. The robot of course doesn’t have a mind or brain, or maybe except a sort of proto-primitive computational brain. But when we see it kicked down and struggling to its feet, we can’t help but project unto it a mind and set of feelings similar to us and feel bad for it being kicked down and struggling to get back up, even though of course it is just a robot.

Hume Versus Smith on Empathy

Empathy is a subject discussed quite extensively in the British philosophical tradition especially amongst the Scots. There are two approaches to understanding the nature of empathy, the “contagion” account of David Hume and the “projective” account of Adam Smith. (A little linguistic diversion, while both Hume and Smith uses the word “sympathy” however they do not mean what we mean by “sympathy” today, the feeling sorry or bad for a certain objective state of someone, but they mean “empathy” as an understanding or “sharing” of feelings.)

Hume’s account of empathy is called the “contagion” account because he speaks of emotions which quite literally “readily pass from one person to another”. Thus, what I feel in my own mind is quite literally what the other person feels. Smith however, more sensibly in my opinion, argues that we don’t quite literally feel what the other person is feeling. In contrast to Hume, Smith argues that we imagine ourselves in the other person’s shoes, so to speak, and try to reproduce their feelings in our own minds. This is why it is called a “projective” account of empathy because we recreate the feelings within our own imaginations and then project it unto others. Smith would develop his account of empathy by postulating an objective “impartial spectator” within our own minds which is well informed and able to observe and recreate the experiences of others in ourselves.

Of course in the light of the robot example, it is clear that Smith, and not Hume, is correct. Empathy is largely an act of the imagination which we project unto others. However precisely because it is an exercise of the imagination, its reliability as an indicator of what other people may feel is not infallible or guaranteed. We may be deceived into feeling bad for a robot, or we may imagine emotions or feelings in others based on certain visual or audio cues which they may not actually feel.

Conclusion: Empathy’s Efficacy Contingent upon Constitutive Similiarity

Thus, this underwrites one of my core arguments about the extent to which empathy is a reliable means for socialisation. Empathy only works within a society or culture of people who are of very similar constitutions and habits. It is only amongst people who are very similar that our empathic predictions of what other people are feeling based on certain visual or audio cues would be reliable trackers of their actual feelings. But when you have a society of millions and millions of diverse strangers, our empathic sense based on episodic cues may go horribly wrong and cause us to imagine all kinds of feelings which they may not actually experience.

Therefore empathy is contingent upon certain objective cultural norms and practices and works only after these convergent practices and habits after the fact.

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