Empathy for the Devil
Explanations are not excuses.
Editor’s note: We have some exciting news to share with you, and it represents an important moment for Wisdom of Crowds and the community we’re building. Santiago Ramos, a former philosophy professor a contributing writer for Commonweal magazine, is joining us as Executive Editor, our first full-time position. We could say various nice things about him, but what stands out to us is his thoughtfulness and his comfort with the complexity of human motivation and human folly. Politics — like life, love, and philosophy — is complicated and we are perpetually facing tradeoffs that thrust us into uncomfortable intellectual places. Even if this isn’t always where we want to be, it’s where we must be. Agreement is nice. Disagreement is better. Or so the motto goes.
With that short introduction as context, we are thrilled to be publishing Santiago’s opening essay, which, as you’ll see, is a lovely exploration of the “explain/excuse fallacy” and perfectly captures the spirit and ethos of Wisdom of Crowds (which you can read more about here).
If you enjoy this piece and aren’t already a member of the Crowd, please do consider becoming either a free or paid subscriber. This is an exciting time and transition for WoC, and we’d be grateful for any of your support, which is what makes our continued growth possible.
—Shadi Hamid and Damir Marusic, co-founders
There’s two passages in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me, which I admire as examples of cognitive empathy. Both are moments when Coates, a professed atheist, puts himself in the shoes of a Christian, and tries to see the world as a Christian sees it. In the first passage, Coates writes about the wisdom and resilience of Mabel Jones, the mother of Prince Jones, Coates’s best friend who was shot by a policeman while still a young man.
Mabel is a Christian:
As she talked of the church ... I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support of our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body ... I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mabel Jones to an exceptional life.
In the second passage, Coates reflects on a photograph of Civil Rights activists: “Their faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous. They betray almost no emotion. They look put past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something way beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe. But, god or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real.”
It’s a moving display of spiritual finesse: Coates, who does not believe in God, assumes the perspective of someone who does. He explores their sources of strength and courage. Of course, it helps that he and the believers are both fighting for the same cause. But Coates does not believe in Christian hope nor divine providence — two ideas which fuel Christian resilience in the face of oppression. Even so, he catches a glimpse of what it must be like to live as someone who believes in hope and providence (“the armor is all over them, and it is real”).
I learned the term “cognitive empathy” from the author Robert Wright, who is writing a book about it. Cognitive empathy is not sympathy with another’s feelings, nor even identifying with them on some immediate level. It’s an “awareness of other people’s feelings,” understanding where these feelings come from, and how they inform people’s actions. Cognitive empathy is crucial, Wright argues, because “you can’t fully understand how people are processing the world unless you understand how they react to it emotionally.” It allows a person to enter into the perspective of someone whose worldview and actions seem completely alien, even morally suspect. Coates practices cognitive empathy when he tries to see the world through the eyes of Mabel Jones and the Christian civil rights activists of the 1960s.
Wisdom of Crowds is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, become a free or paid subscriber.
Wright started writing about cognitive empathy after he noticed a certain fallacy appearing everywhere in political debates: the “explain/excuse conflation,” or the tendency to confuse the explanation of an action with a moral excuse for it. Of course, Wright admits, very often people explain an action in an effort to excuse it (“He yelled at you because you made him nervous,” for example). But abuse does not take away proper use. Looking at contemporary history, we search for explanations behind actions—military invasions, assassinations, terrorist attacks—which we rightly find abhorrent. There are certain hot-button questions that, in certain contexts, elicit the explain/excuse conflation: why Russia invaded Ukraine; why the Palestinian resistance resorted to terrorism; why millions of Americans vote for Donald Trump.
Moral indignation should be given its due. In the face of atrocities, our first reaction should be outrage, not nuance. Our first response to something like the attacks of October 7 should not be analysis, it should be condemnation. There will be time to study the causes and incentives which shaped certain choices and events. But it’s a bad sign if those crimes don’t provoke knee-jerk disgust.
It’s this healthy disgust, combined with a fear of moral relativism, that makes people conflate explanation and excuse. Both conservatives and leftists are good at detecting bogus justifications for evil. Conservatives might balk at the slogan, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” because the phrase seems to imply that there is no objective moral view on the person in question. Whether a historical figure is a terrorist or a freedom fighter is an important, unavoidable question. Similarly, a leftist writer might find hairsplitting arguments about the minimum wage or the definition of torture to be tedious and ideological, like a smokescreen for immoral behavior. This skepticism about impartial analysis and cognitive empathy is not unjustified. But moral condemnation of this sort can muffle any attempt at analysis.
Explaining does not mean excusing. To explain Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine does not have to mean justifying the invasion of a sovereign nation. You can examine the root causes of violence without justifying terrorism. To explain why your uncle voted Trump in 2020 is not the same as voting for Trump yourself. Explaining the causes of the French Revolution does not require supporting Marie Antoinette’s beheading.
To distinguish between explanation and excuse is difficult to do in the middle of a war. But if we stop trying, Wright fears, we will lose the mental skill that allows us to develop explanations: cognitive empathy. Without cognitive empathy, we are more vulnerable to evil, not less. To know your enemy, you have to empathize with their motivations.
Cognitive empathy is important not only for understanding great historical events, but also for peaceful coexistence. The examples from Coates’ memoir are relatively easy: Coates does not share Mabel Jones’ Christian faith, but he does share other important things, like a belief in racial justice, and grief over the death of Mabel’s son. Instead, in the United States today, we often find our neighbors’ views unjust or worse, dehumanizing. But there’s hope in trying to understand them. To understand why someone votes the way they do requires a grasp of that person’s worldview, and the experiences which created it. This empathy and understanding does not guarantee sympathy and solidarity. But it does reveal our neighbor’s humanity. It makes the other person intelligible, and a deeper engagement with them possible. And engagement is better than war.
Wisdom of Crowds is a platform challenging premises and understanding first principles on politics and culture. Join us!
Wisdom of Crowds is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.