Introspection, Empathy, Judgement, and Justice
Connecting the Lives of Minds and Others
I’ve had the pleasure and honor of speaking and reading alongside the wonderful Tim Enloe and John Abolt for a number of years, and some thoughts arose recently in a discussion on St. Augustine that I wanted to record here best I could on the topics of introspection, empathy, judgment (which is tied to “proportion” and “weight”), and justice. To start, we cannot know how to love others until we understand people, but problematically the only person we occupy is ourselves. To learn how to love people, the best “training ground” available to us is our own hearts, minds, and bodies, which suggests that the only method of learning how to love others we have is by learning to love ourselves. But this is problematic, because we are full of self-deception, bias, corruption, egotism, and worse. Rarely can efforts to love ourselves not become methods to boost our egos. How then can we ever hope to love others through introspection? Do we note flirt with pride?
Not all introspection is equal, and someone who introspects for a day will not develop the same skills of introspection as someone who practices the skill for years. St. Augustine is a prime example of someone who is trying to learn “the art of introspection” but is never sure if he can trust himself. There is always a little bit of doubt, but as ‘[t]he spirit of liberty is found in that spirit which is not too sure that it is right’ (as Leopold Hand once put it), so the spirit of introspection is found in that spirit which is never sure that it is fully known. Once we stop introspecting, perhaps it’s like we never introspected at all. Similarly, if we stop eating, we start to starve as if we never digested a morsel.
Introspection is difficult, precisely because we must fight our ego do it well. But training ourselves to introspect seems necessarily if we are actually to engage in empathy, which seems paramount for real “critical thinking” (as discussed in “On Critical Thinking” by O.G. Rose). People are possibly the hardest thing in the world to “think,” and it is especially difficult to actually enter the world of another person, versus only enter it in terms of our world. We often put our shoes in another person’s shoes, not our feet, which is to say that we tend to love people as we think they ought to be loved and according to what we think defines love. As we can be “self-deceived,” so we can be “other-deceived.” Considering this, where introspection is lacking, so empathy will likewise also be lacking. The fates of introspection and the fates of empathy seem strongly linked. How then do we learn to introspect without it becoming egotistical? Well, that is a concern of O.G. Rose across many papers, and please do see The True Isn’t the Rational for more.
Empathy has us “outward looking,” and it’s strange to think that “going inward” is critical for our ability to “see outward.” However, we always see through “our eyes,” which are part of us, and so it makes sense that we have “to go inside” and make sure we are “working right” to assure that we “take in the world” well. Similarly, if the headlight of a car breaks, we don’t fix it by investigating the tree on which the headlight shone and blinked. We fix our “take on the world” not in the world but in ourselves, but this is not easy, considering how prone to self-deception, egotism, and the like we are, with Confessions by St. Augustine serving as a tremendous example for why this challenge is so great. There is much wisdom to be found in those pages on how to approach the “art-form” well (“see for yourself”).
Anyway, the moment we “look out” and/or “try to understand” what we experience (in ourselves, out of ourselves), we are trying to figure out how to “rightly apply” our thinking to the world. Application means judgment, and if we never judged, we would never be able to connect our inner and outer lives (please note in other papers that I make distinctions between “judgment” and “assessment,” but here I will streamline the language for the sake of simplification). We could introspect and empathize all we wanted, but if we never applied what we learned, it wouldn’t make much difference. Also, we couldn’t determine “where we ended and others began,” per se, for that determination requires judgment in of itself. Judgment is what makes thinking matter, but unfortunately we are prone to use judgment in destructive ways and become “judgmental.” Hence why judgment must be trained with introspection, and hence why true “judgment” and “empathy” seem connected. Judgment without empathy is judgmental but thinking without judgment is “practically” irrelevant. We must risk.
The perhaps final and most difficult intellectual act is indeed “judgment,” which is basically the accurate and “fitting” application of an idea to the world. If we never judge our idea of x as applying in situation y, then our idea never has anything to do with the world, and it is hardly even an idea at all. The step of “concretion,” of “actualizing an idea,” as Hegel put it, is necessary for ideas to even be ideas. That in mind, let us now consider how a key part of judgment is “proportion” and/or “weighing” (arguably, the terms are practically similes). For example, if we conclude freedom matters and move to “apply” freedom to the design of a society, we must determine “how much freedom” we need in comparison to say “structure.” Yes, we are “applying freedom” to a society when we do not weigh it in proportion with other needs (justice, equality, etc.), but this value will likely prove “poorly applied” and even destructive (considering “Deconstructing Common Life” on David Hume) unless it is weighed with other values. Considering this, judgement is often if not always a weighing against and with many variables (a point which brings Isiah Berlin to mind). If all we do is “judge” if freedom is good or not, we hardly judge at all: it is when we judge freedom in light of everything else a society needs that arguably “real thinking” begins.
As introspection trains us to develop ways of thinking that we need to do empathy well, so it also trains us to develop ways of thinking which are needed for judgment and thinking in terms of proportion. If we reference St. Augustine again, in Book X, he wonders when it is alright to eat food and when it is indulging in excess, as he wonders when it is alright to enjoy the pleasures of music and it not be sinful. He concludes it is “fitting” to eat when we need to eat but not when we don’t, and he “judges” that hymns help us improve our holiness when we enjoy the words more than the music (for the words directly speak of God’s goodness). I’m not sure I agree with the details of this (for if God is ultimately an entity beyond language, perhaps music can be a “higher resolution” of God’s love and direct us toward God in ways mere words cannot), but the point is that St. Augustine is introspecting on his own motives for food, considering them in light of other people’s relation to food and their reasons for enjoying it, and then finding (correctly or wrongly) “the right proportion” and “right way” to enjoy food and music without falling into sin, a “way” which he believes can be fairly applied to and by other people (while at the same time making room for particular differences). Hence, introspection, self-skepticism, proportion, and judgment (of motives and on what principles can be generalized) are all carried out in the process of the same consideration.
Now, I’m not saying I can necessarily prove that introspection, empathy, and judgment are all connected, but I think there is good reason to believe they are all trained together even if still distinct. The main “training ground” of them all indeed seems to be introspection, and the next argument I would like to make is that we shouldn’t be surprised therefore that a society lacking introspection is also lacking empathy (falling into tribalism), and as a result unable to “take things in the right proportion” (everything is either the end of the world or our salvation). But don’t we live in a world full of introspection? Everyone is always talking about “being true to themselves.” Fair enough, but this gets us into the critical distinction between “expression” and “introspection,” where “expression” is “letting our inner selves come out” while “introspection” is “going into our inner selves.” Expression is “bringing something out of a room,” per se, while introspection is “going into a room.”
I do not mean to say that “expression” is always bad, and in fact it can be very good: my point is only that a society of “expression” will not necessarily be a society of “introspection” (and without introspection, we may lack the skill or ability to “weigh” when we should do one or the other). A key difference is the role of self-skepticism, which is not necessary in expression (and in fact might be frowned on, because it could inhibit expression), whereas it is utterly necessary in introspection. Problematically, it is the very fact that expression feels like knowing our “true self” and doing the work of “our inner lives” that we can be strongly convinced that we have introspected exactly when we have not. For this reason, we might think we are indeed good at empathy, weighing, and judgment exactly as the world falls more into tribalism and extremism. Because we express ourselves though, we’d have to conclude it must be “the fault of others” who haven’t done this “inner work” for why the world crumbles. In this way, “the fall” will be total.
Anyway, a prime point that I want to discuss is how the loss of judgment and “weighing” leads to a world where “all similarity equals sameness,” which means “all patterns are proof of equivalence” (elsewhere, I also connect “sameness” with “effacement,” which I think is worth noting). Where we cannot judge, there is no meaningful distinction between “similarity” and “sameness,” and this would greatly hinder our ability to think well as a society. For example, the government requiring us to have driver licenses is “similar to” totalitarian regimes requiring citizens to “carry papers,” but this “similarity” doers not prove “equivalence.” However, if we lack the skills of judgments, which we might lack because we can’t introspect, then we will only be able to see the requirement for a license as equivalent to being controlled by a dictator. Yes, perhaps there is a “pattern,” but a pattern is not “an equal sign,” but unfortunately we can’t really tell the difference without “judgment.”
This is an extreme example to make a point, but less extreme examples could easily be imagined. Simply put, without judgment, all examples of reductions of freedom must be seen as the same as all reductions of freedom, and that would include the most extreme and totalitarian of examples. In this way, we will be incapable of a “balanced” or “weighed” enactment or relationship with freedom: we must “practically” be all or nothing (and so it goes with all values). And when we are all like this, justice becomes hard to realize, for justice is ultimately a state of a “proper ordering” and “proper weighing.” The fate of judgment is the fate of justice, even though we may reasonably avoid judgment to avoid the judgmentalism which inhibits justice.
Empathy and critical thinking are strongly connected, and if introspection trains us to both empathize and judge, then the loss of introspection is the loss of both the ability to “weigh well” and to connect with others who could help us realize we are “weighing poorly” when we in fact are (the loss is “total,” I fear). When we make mistakes, we can need an “outside perspective” to help us realize we’ve made a mistake, but to really take seriously an outside perspective, we need empathy. Well, if indeed introspection is needed for empathy, then with introspection we lose the ability to “be corrected” and to avoid making mistakes which result from bad judgment. The loss of introspection is hence dire and yet concealing of its direness, for introspection takes with it the judgement needed to weigh the severity of its loss.
Where judgment and proportion are lacking, every act of government which “restricts freedom” must practically be the same as Stalinism, as every act of concealment must be the same as a destructive lie — and so on. Judgment makes possible difference, and yet strangely it would seem introspection, an act that seems “closed-off” to difference, is precisely what trains us to meaningfully acknowledge difference. There is no actual “sameness” in the world (it is always an effacement), so a way of thinking that effaces “similarity” and makes all “similarity equal sameness” is a way of thinking that will deconstruct itself. If judgment and “weighing” is necessary for there to be a “practical” difference between “sameness” and “similarity” (and keep in mind that all “similarity” means there are degrees of “difference,” hence “similarity/difference’), then a world which cannot “weigh” is a world which will undergo (degrees of) deconstruction (which perhaps describes our world today). If furthermore introspection is tied to judgment, and our lack of introspection is hidden under the prevalence of expression, then we will deconstruct ourselves all while we think we are training ourselves against deconstruction. The medicine we take to feel better will be what has made us sick.
Where all “similarity is equivalence,” we cannot see similarity with those who disagree with us, only their equivalence to an enemy. In this world, our only friends will be our clones, and then where will justice be found? If justice is indeed a matter of “properly balancing values” and “putting things in the right order,” a loss of judgment (which could be due to a loss of introspection, which correlates with a loss of empathy) will entail a loss of justice. If we cannot judge, justice will not be found. Assuming the logic of this piece is correct, that means if we cannot introspect, we will not find a just world and fail to develop the empathy we need to really love other people (versus love them according to our ideas). Where justice is lacking then, we should also expect a lack of love. Love and justice are cultivated within us when the reason we enter ourselves is to overcome ourselves for the sake of others (and, following Augustine, for God as well, necessarily). If we only use our “inner lives” to express them for others to see though — if we only treat “others” as “an audience,” per se — love and justice will likely fade. Eyes that are not set on the unseen do not come to rest upon what they long to see.
To close, though it is another topic, I believe “dialectical thinking” is a critical component of introspection, which means that where dialectics are lacking, so we will be lacking in self-knowledge, empathy, judgment, and justice. The fate of one is the fate of all, and we should therefore not be surprised that a world which replaces “introspection” with “expression” is a world where all will be lacking, precisely when we feel like we are wearing our hearts on our sleeves. Yes, perhaps we will be wearing our hearts, but that means we will not be offering them up.