Radical empathy, the double bind, and moral trauma
A narrative is not a substitute for a philosophical argument; nor is a philosophical argument a substitute for a story. These are not substitutable for one another under descriptions that preserve truth. The matter is especially tricky if one is making a point or taking a position about human actions, preferences, or behavior in extreme situations. One can make a point or support a position by means of a logical argument. In an argument, one considers the relationship between the premises of the argument and the conclusion. Are the premises factually accurate? One interviews witnesses or assesses the available data. One can have an invalid argument from true premises. The premises are true but the conclusion does not follow from them. One can have a valid argument from false premises. The premises are false but the conclusion logically follows from them. Or one can have a conclusion that validly follows from true premises, in which case the argument is sound, the gold standard of reasoning. Once an argument contains a contradiction, then anything follows from it, including a true conclusion. It is just that the latter is logically unrelated to what comes before. And arguments are only getting started here. If one is dealing with a moral dilemma or nonstandard logics such as possible world scenarios, the premises become more complex, the technicalities fan out, and the alternative paths through the labyrinth of reasoning multiply rapidly. While human actions are sensibly understood to have both reasons and causes, these are taken to include motives and triggers that may be redescribed as “insane,” “deviant,” “anomalous,” “pathological,” and so on. Special cases, exceptions, and examples that are counter-intuitive, raise the spectrum that one is dealing with a phenomena that is not always a rational process.
Thus, one looks for alternative ways of making one’s case than marshalling the technical apparatus of formal and informal logic. One can make a point or support a position by telling a story. One trades off logical rigor in favor of a compelling narrative. “Let me tell ya what happened.” “You can’t make this stuff up!” “You are not gonna believe what he told her!” Without deciding whether or not reason is the slave of the passions (Hume 1739), storytelling exemplifies the struggles in which people engage in an attempt to attain personal satisfaction and fulfillment in the face of the conflict requirements of scarce reality, community standards, and earning one’s daily bread by the sweat of one’s brow, even if the sweat is due to the stress of working in a corporate empathy desert rather than plowing the field in the hot sun. 
For example, Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World (2019) presents a narrative that, in its outline, is similar to the overall structure of the moral dilemma known as “the Trolley Car Dilemma.” Before defining the terms of the story and of the philosophic dilemma in detail, it is useful to note, both offer rich possibilities for confronting human behavior and actions in extreme situations. Both offer possibilities for the practice of moral reasoning and of the practice of empathy. But only one put the reader and reasoner in the trolley car itself, facing the dilemma, and that, counter-intuitively is not the abstract statement of the dilemma in the trolley car problem, but the novel itself. (For details on the movie version of the novel see the New York Times Review.)
The story delivers the experiences of being caught in a double bind, moral trauma, soul murder, and cognitive-emotional-moral conflicts that make people so anxious they up at night unable to sleep due to intrusive thoughts. With the story, one is inside the experience of the dilemma in the sense of being viscerally gripped by it in way that is not the case if one is abstractly reasoning cognitively about motives and morals. With the story, one is grabbed by the throat, and is hard pressed to pretend that the dilemma does not matter. This matter of mattering is of the essence here. With the story, the dilemma is no longer able to be dismissed as a puzzling case or an irrelevant philosophical game without real world relevance. But the “mattering” here is not in the interest of expanding knowledge by confirming or refuting a quantitative hypothesis – that five people are more people than one person. The mattering is in order to get to one’s friend’s house in one piece – literally to go on being. Well-being. Personal flourishing. Survival.
That is different than being up at night because one is trying to disentangle a logical puzzle, the difference being roughly that between an obsessive preoccupation and post-traumatic stress. Neither is pleasant and both have the potential to keep one up at night. Though many exceptions exist and generalization is risky, treatment of the former is considered more predictable and simpler.
The Trolley Car dilemma is as follows. You are the agent on a runaway trolley car with broken brakes, which will run over five people unless you throw the switch to change the track, which, however, will result in running over one person. So far, everyone, including you, are innocent. Surely this is an engaging thought experiment, a philosophical fiction.
Our empathy for the agent starts out as requiring a decision that no one should have to make. The agent is forced to make a decision that neither he nor anyone else is authorized to make. But he has to make it anyway. Doing nothing is also a decision, and people are going to die. This is the definition of a double bind – damned if one does, and damned if one doesn’t. This is the kind of thing that drives people insane – insane with second guessing, insane with grief, insane with guilt. One can be both a perpetrator and a victim.
The problem of course is unsolvable without further background. When the philosophers Philippa Foot (1967) and Judith Jarvis Thompson (1976) first proposed a version of it, Foot wanted to present the dilemma as the difference between the utilitarian moralists such as Jeremy Bentham, committed to the greatest good of the greatest number, and the deontologists roughly represented by Immanuel Kant, for whom the motive for acting is itself the guide to the moral worth of the behavior in question. The solution is relatively easy for the utilitarian – save the greatest number. The utilitarian then must deal with the fact that the person who throws the switch becomes a perpetrator, killing the one innocent person. The Kantian is clear that the moral worth of an action is independent of the consequences of the action, which, in this life, are often unpredictable even when the outcome seems certain. The moral law does not allow throwing a switch in order to kill one person. The Kantian, casuistically inspired by Thomas Aquinas (see two paragraphs below), might argue back that the moral law does indeed allow throwing a switch to save five people. Or at least it does not prohibit one from saving five people, the motive being to preserve and further life. The casuistry is that one must turn a blind eye to the consequence of killing the one person, which for the Kantian is relatively easy to do because he excludes consequences from the moral equation. The consequence of killing the one person is entirely a regrettable accident. However, the person who throws the switch becomes a perpetrator nonetheless, killing the one innocent person.
Radical empathy reveals that one can be both a perpetrator and a survivor. What has been overlooked is the role of moral trauma. The driver of the trolly car, the agent, is put in a double-bind, in which, whatever the action, innocent people are going to suffer and die. In literature this has a name. It is called “tragedy.”
Radical empathy reveals the tragic dimension of the situation. The Trolley Car dilemma requires a story to complete it, and the story is an empathic, albeit, tragic one. Here “completion” does not mean that no one dies. It means that a person is forced to make a decision that no person is authorized to make – that no one should have to make – but one has to make it anyway. Doing nothing is the decision to let five die. Throwing the switch is intentionally to embrace the role of perpetrator and give up the illusion that one is innocent. Indeed in some jurisdictions, throwing the switch would technically qualify for manslaughter. Let the jury decide whether voluntary or not.
Nor is this merely the principle of double effect reasoning, in which a valid action has a harmful “side effect” as “collateral damage,” which Thomas Aquinas documented in Summa Theologica (Part 2 of II, Question 64, Article 7), his example being killing an aggressor in self-defense. There are no “bad guys” in the Trolley Car Dilemma. A closer analogue, probably known to Foot, would be the example of childbirth before modern medicine made a Caesarian Section a relatively safe, albeit radical, intervention. (Reader (trigger) alert: this not for the faint of heart.) A viable baby is backwards or badly positioned in the womb, and the baby is stuck. If one saves the mother, she may eventually give birth to five more sons and daughters. If one saves the baby, by performing the Caesarian, then the mother will bleed to death (probability .95). Action is required. The surgeon is the agent in the trolley car. If the surgeon does nothing, the baby dies, still in the womb; and the mother subsequently dies, probably of infection. One option is the surgeon decides to act to remove the stuck baby, usually by performing a craniotomy, cutting it apart. Technically speaking, when the baby’s head is crushed that is child abuse, soul murder. The alternative is to operate on the mother. The outcome was fatal to her at least up until the 1940s. The surgeon is both the perpetrator and the survivor in that he must grapple with moral trauma, the latter in the sense that he must live with the guilt that is experienced for killing the otherwise innocent, viable baby.
Childbirth is not war, though given the paragraph before last it may seem so. Moral trauma is common in war, though until recently it has not been recognized by the United States Veteran’s Administration as a cause of the mental health issues of “wounded warriors.” For example, in Iraq, a car is racing towards a security check point and fails to stop even after hand signals and warning shots. Believing the car to be a suicide bomb, the sergeant orders the corporeal to shoot at the driver – with a 50-caliber machine gun. It turns out to be a family racing to the hospital because the pregnant mother has gone into labor. The survivors are awarded $10K and an apology (Carlstrom 2010). The soldier who pulled the trigger is both a perpetrator and now trying to survive moral trauma. He is uninjured physically. He was a “normal” midwestern guy with brother and sisters and a pregnant wife of his own. The army does not debrief the team about what happened. He is not invited to talk about it. He really did pull the trigger, believing he was following a valid military order and defending his team against a suicide bomber. But, examining the car afterwards, and realizing what he and his team have done, he sinks back into himself, burdened by guilt at having killed the family. He becomes unresponsive to those around him, does not respond to orders, and is shipped back home without being debriefed and with a dishonorable discharge. He is no more responsive back in the States, and, does not want to talk about it. His marriage fails. He becomes homeless. A perpetrator in the technical sense, but also a victim and survivor.
Thus, the Trolley Car Dilemma is unsolvable without a corresponding story. In the story, “you” are there. You are there at the nonfunctioning controls. The track is racing towards one at high speed. The innocent persons come rapidly into view. You search desperately for an ax, a fire extinguisher, a suitcase to throw under the rapidly rotating wheels. None is available. You wish you had the courage for altruistic suicide, throwing yourself in front of the racing car to attempt derailment. One thought too many for effective action. You invoke the deity, say a prayer, call on God. He is busy elsewhere. No one is listening. You are in a double bind. Like Colonel Aureliano Buendia facing the firing squad, you cannot move. You can decide what to shout, but you have no control over the “Ready, aim, fire!” The “solution” is a story called “tragedy.” This is what tragedy feels like, looks like, sounds like. The solution is a tragedy.
The story “completes” the problem in the sense of showing how every action designed to avoid the tragic outcome (that innocence suffers and dies) advances the action in the direction of a tragic outcome – innocence suffers and dies. The agent who pretends to be innocent by taking no action becomes a perpetrator and descends into trying to live with and survive moral trauma; and the agent who embraces action becomes a perpetrator and descends into trying to live with and survive moral trauma.
Because the consequences of human action both escape us and, as in this case, are inescapable, radical empathy teaches that people are forced to make decisions that they should not have to make and must live with the moral trauma as survivors. Of course the example of the seemingly inevitable outcome is a counter-example as Colonel Aurelian Buendia faces the firing squad, as readers of Marquez know well, a revolution occurs and the execution is interrupted seconds before the order to “Fire!” is given. Buendia lives for another two hundred pages. So our finitude consists in knowing that “no one gets out alive,” but also that we do not know what the future will bring, the details of even the next few seconds, or the timing of the exit in spite of being so certain.
Radical empathy is defined formally in relation to standard empathy: Radical empathy deploys the same four minimal essential aspects of standard empathy – receptivity, understanding, interpretation, and responsiveness. The differences from standard empathy map to these dimensions. Empathic receptivity is “dialed down,” decreased to prevent empathic distress or compassion fatigue. “Dialed down” does not mean the listener becomes hard-hearted or unfeeling, but the vicarious aspect of the survivor’s experience is emphasized. The listener is aware that this trauma or tragedy is indeed a trauma or tragedy, but, for example, the listener is not on the Titanic, but watching the movie. (key term: vicarious experience.) The empathic understanding of possibility is radicalized in the sense that possibilities of the experience of pain, suffering, or high spirits exist that the listener’s imagination cannot necessarily grasp in advance. For example, in the Mephistopheles’ description of Hell in Mann’s Dr Faustus, words are used to described the indescribable;
Every compassion, every grace, every sparing, every last trace of consideration for the incredulous, imploring objection ‘that you verily cannot do so unto a soul’: it is done, it happens, and indeed without being called to any reckoning in words; in soundless cellar, far down beneath God’s hearing […] (1947: 245)
Empathic understanding of possibility confronts the survivor, who may indeed be skeptical that anything can make a difference, with the assertion. “No one was listening when you called for help – well, someone is now listening. Try me. Recovery is a possibility, skeptical though you, the survivor, may be.” If empathic receptivity is “dialed down,” empathic interpretation is “dialed up,” expanded. The folk definition of “taking a walk in the Other’s shoes” is most relevant in cognitively trying to imagine what the Other had to go through when the listener’s sense of the situation is limited. When the listener’s empathy gets “stuck,” blocked, inhibited, because the experiences of the self and the Other are so at variation, empathic interpretation, perspective shifting, is a proven way of cognitively “jump starting” the empathic process. Finally, the empathic responsiveness of radical empathy consists in eliciting an expression of the experience of the trauma from the survivor in the present situation of safety, acceptance, and toleration; processing that experience to the extent that it can be processed to drain the toxic emotions out of the trauma, defanging the snake, so to speak, to the extent that is possible; and saying what happened, thus, giving the survivor’s experience back to the survivor in a form of words that acknowledges and recognizes the survivor’s humanity.
 Plato dialogues are rich in logical reasoning about distinctions of meaning and they sometimes end up with a myth. When reasoning comes to an end, the dialectic changes from persuasion by logic into storytelling, which provides a different kind of persuasive engagement. For example, Plato’s Republic ends with the myth of Er (10.614–10.621); the Phaedrus ends with the myth of the winged soul; and the Timaeus includes a myth of the creation of the universe by a demiurge
NOTE: This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, Empathy in the Context of Literature (c) Lou Agosta, PhD
This post, web site, and all content (c) Lou Agosta, PhD