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A Paean to Reason and Empathy

Kaushik Basu's picture

The following blog post is an excerpt from my commencement address delivered at the Diploma Ceremony of Fordham University, held in New York on May 19, 2013

The first rule of reason is honesty. There are situations in life where kindness and concern for others make us hold back on certain kinds of speech. That is as it should be. Speech can hurt as much as physical violence. If the latter is wrong, so must be the former. But to ourselves, in our minds, we should practice the utmost honesty. Honesty in thought may be inconvenient but in the long-run it helps.

Consider what we are often told—that if there is a will, there is a way; with sufficient determination, we can achieve anything. But to believe in this you have to suspend reason. And my advice is don’t. There are things in life which through sufficient determination you can achieve; but there are also things which no matter how hard you try, you will never get. It is best to see this clearly and realistically and then make your own choices rationally. You will make better decisions.

Second, it is important to be modest about our knowledge and to know how little we know. There have been prominent philosophers in history, from Pyrrho of Elis some 300 years B.C., through Sextus Empiricus in the second century A.D. to David Hume in the 18th century, who have been skeptics in the sense of being deeply aware of the frailty of human understanding. There are important traditions in oriental thought that belong to the same tradition. The ancient Indian philosophy of maya and some early Chinese poetry capture this exceedingly well. Here is a famous poem from the 3rd century BC, attributed to the philosopher Chuang Tzu: “Once upon a time I dreamt I was a butterfly. Then I awoke. And now I do not know if I am a man dreaming I am a butterfly or a butterfly that has fallen asleep and dreaming I am a man.”


I would not recommend that you take this philosophy to the extremity to which some of these philosophers did. Pyrrho, it is believed, walked past a fellow Greek philosopher who had fallen into a ditch, without making any attempt to rescue him; and later explained that he could not be sure that the philosopher would be better off outside the ditch than in it.

Do not take skepticism to such extremes. But practiced in moderation, it can actually be liberating. To be aware that what we see with our naked eyes can be illusory stands to reason and can be a source of calm.

Third, when you get angry and upset with someone, in your personal or professional life, try to understand that people are products of their history, life experience, and environment. Once you learn to reason about the causes of human behavior, this will come naturally. This is not incompatible with taking steps to stop people from acting or speaking in certain ways. You can have distaste for certain actions but not for the actor. And let me assure you that to learn this art is to take a big load off your shoulder.

The art of empathy and compassion is related to a well-known axiom of welfare economics. This is called the principle of anonymity and refers to the need to treat individuals with the same respect, irrespective of their name, race, ethnicity. It asks us, when dealing with people, to pause and think “if I were you.” The principle of anonymity has been used by prominent philosophers, like Immanuel Kant. But I can do no better than to introduce you to this idea by quoting someone who, in my opinion, is the greatest living economist in the world, Kenneth Arrow. Arrow had quoted the epitaph of Martin Engelbrod to explain this principle.

Here lies Martin Engelbrod
Have mercy on my soul oh God
As I would you if I were God
And you were Martin Engelbrod.

Rooted in the same principle is Gandhi’s famous advice. When in a dilemma about which action to take, think of the poorest and saddest individual you have known—nothing else about that person matters—and do what will be better for that person.

Compassion and empathy do not have any contradictions with reason and have reach beyond. This principle of empathy—being able to understand and reach out to people who look different from you—can make the world a better place. And this should not be a difficult art. Once we look a little deeper, beyond our superficial differences, it becomes evident that we human beings have similarities that transcend race, religion and ethnicity. This is no surprise because we all share the same genetic roots, from the people who set out from Africa some 70,000 years ago and settled all over the earth. I know it sounds sentimental and moralistic but it is true, that for one group to turn against another is for siblings to turn against siblings. There should be no place for that.

And if that is not persuasion enough, there is a selfish reason for compassion. Curiously, compassion can be empowering. It enables us to deal better with other people and so ends up being a source of our own strength, joy and, in the end, happiness. Whether you become an academic, the CEO of a corporation or a stock trader, do not abandon empathy for those with whom you interact.

I have gone on for a while, giving you reasons for greater happiness in life. I will not prolong this further because of one last reason—giving too many reasons can be self-defeating. They can nullify one another. An old tale illustrates this well. A man charged in court with inflicting violence decided to persuade the jury with a profusion of reasons. So he argued, “Here are three reasons why I should be acquitted. First, I was out of town on the day of my alleged crime. Second, my religion prohibits the use of any form of violence. And, third, he hit me first.”

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