"Ex Machina": The Virtue and Vice of Empathy
On Paul Bloom's "Against Empathy" and how Alex Garland's 2014 film "Ex Machina" explores the arguments for and against empathic feeling.
Paul Bloom is against empathy. The professor of psychology is not opposed to compassion or sympathy, and he certainly has nothing against caring for others. In fact, his antagonism towards empathy largely rests on the accusation that in questions of moral decision making, empathic responses – rather than cold-blooded rationality – very often lead to unfair outcomes for others.
In his book Against Empathy, Bloom makes two key moves in succession: First, he defines “empathy” as being the temporary identification of oneself with another person’s emotions. He is not impugning the ability to understand another person’s experience – variously called theory of mind or social intelligence – but rather the proclivity for feeling what another person is feeling. His second move is to describe the ways in which emotional empathy causes us to make worse ethical choices.
Take the practice of allowing victim statements in trials where they will have sway on those sentencing the guilty: The difference between a lenient and a harsh sentence might depend on myriad subjective factors. The victim might be articulate or mumbling, prone to displays of passion or unflaggingly stoic; equally, the judge might hold biases against one kind of victim and in favour of another, giving preference to someone of the same skin colour, deference to a widow, or dismissing someone they consider to be “snivelling”.
Empathy is the engine to this vehicle of prejudice, because accessing it is easier in relation to those we already have a preference towards. Take this example cited by Bloom, which is backed up with data provided by a study conducted by a team at the University of Kansas led by psychologist C. Daniel Batson:
“[They] told subjects about a ten-year-old girl ... who had a fatal disease and was waiting in line for treatment that would relieve her pain. Subjects were told that they could move her to the front of the line. When simply asked what to do, they acknowledged that she had to wait because other more needy children were ahead of her. But if they were first asked to imagine what she felt, they tended to choose to move her up, putting her ahead of children who were presumably more deserving. Here empathy was more powerful than fairness, leading to a decision that most of us would see as immoral.”
It might be tempting to riposte that this actually signals a failure caused by a lack of empathy, and that the moral knot can be untangled by expanding one’s empathy to include those children ahead of the girl in question. But this solution only returns us to the need for an application of rational equity: The tiebreaker between these children, for whom we now feel maximal, equal empathy, is to look at the details of their medical needs and assess them objectively. Again, less empathy is needed so as to make space for more of the necessary fairness.
I was in the process of being won over by Bloom’s thesis as he articulated it on Sam Harris’ podcast, Making Sense, when Bloom appeared to toss a roadblock in the path of his own speeding argument. He conceded that “empathy is the source of so many pleasures”, noting that it is “core to the pleasures of fiction”. He ran through a number of other places in our lives where a deficit of empathy negatively undermines the purpose of those activities, specifically sport and sex. But it was the dissection of the utility and joys of empathy in the realms of literature and movies that, as Harris put it, “hit the bullseye for me”.
On closer inspection of Against Empathy, we discover that Bloom’s case is not undermined by these specific virtues. In the introduction to the paperback version of his book, Bloom concedes that a more accurate title might have been Against the Misapplication of Empathy. Or Empathy Is Not Everything. Or Empathy Plus Reason Make a Great Combination. The marketing demands for brevity likely account for the less nuanced title the book sits with. In any case, Bloom allows for applications and kinds of empathy that have positive value, especially in fiction.
Imagine a pill that inhibits, for several hours, your capacity for empathic feeling. You drop a pill down your throat at the cinema, take your seat in front of the screen, and spend the next two hours fully conscious of the fact that you are watching people pretend to be other people while they recite words someone else has told them to say. In fact, you aren’t even really watching actors – you are watching light shine on a canvas of heavy white vinyl, while you are sandwiched between strangers whose elbows touch your own as you wait for the credits to roll, so you can leave and find a more functionally productive way to spend your time. Some of the cleaning products beneath the sink might be out of date, and you could hoover the lint out of the bottom of the sock drawer.
Empathy, the kind that causes tears to flow at the end of the movie and laughter at a Wodehouse novel, is fundamental to the experience of reading a book or watching a film. An ability to feel vicariously is a precondition for this pleasure, but it is also vital for some of the more didactic aspects of literature and cinema. Exploiting our empathy is how some writers have simultaneously entertained us with complex emotional experiences and challenged us with equally complex moral conundrums.
If part of you wasn’t cheering Walter White as he descended into drug lord violence, or admiring Humbert Humbert’s intellect and eloquence even as he pursued a child for sexual satisfaction, or at least smirking as the tormented and blood-soaked Carrie avenged herself against her bullies even though her vengeance was murderous, this might be strong evidence of a failure of empathy on your part.
In Alex Garland’s 2014 movie, Ex Machina, we are carried into the first act of the film via Caleb, a tech company employee who wins a visit to the luxurious, isolated mountain home of the Nathan Bateman, the company’s CEO. Caleb’s wonder and trepidation are our own, as he acts as a vehicle for our viewing experience; we wonder what Nathan will be like and what might happen on this week-long retreat just as Caleb wonders the same. The internal experience we are invited to imagine he is having matches our own to such an extent that our empathy diminishes the line between characterand viewer, between him and me.
Hergé used this device brilliantly with Tintin, his blank slate of a protagonist with no family or backstory to prevent the reader’s intimate identification with the boy reporter, so that we slip right into the adventure he is having. The manipulation of our empathy here, at the beginning of Ex Machina, serves to signal that Caleb is our protagonist. He is the first person we meet in the movie, we follow his journey to the secluded house-cum-laboratory, he is as unfamiliar with Nathan as we are, and his story seems to be ours. Ex Machina then spends the rest of the movie challenging this assumption.
Nathan has built an automaton named Ava that (who) has artificial intelligence. Caleb will engage in an extended Turing Test, in which he must determine if Ava is capable of consciousness, and Nathan will learn whether Caleb can be made to forget, by Ava’s actions and personality, that she is not human. As one would expect of an Alex Garland script, this is not the full story and there is much depth beneath this surface. In the final act, Nathan reveals to Caleb that the true nature of the experiment was not what he had led his visitor to believe it was.
After his first interview with Ava, Caleb is amazed. “When you’re talking to her, you’re just ... through the looking glass.” You’ve got to love a well-placed hint at subtext. Ava is Alice, having travelled through the looking glass and finding herself in an unusual world where the rules must be learned. The rules here will provide Ava with the single escape route out of her cell at the centre of Nathan’s household compound. She must manipulate the affections of the gullible, though intelligent, Caleb. Like Alice, who begins as a pawn of the White Queen and crosses the chessboard terrain to be made a queen by the Red side, Ava begins as Nathan’s puppet and must navigate the ontological terrain of his game to convince Caleb to make her his “queen”.
“To escape,” Nathan goes on to explain, “she would have to use imagination, sexuality, self-awareness, empathy ...”
It’s worth noting the set of criteria (the rules of the chessboard) by which Nathan assumes Ava will win Caleb over and which, he believes, he can use to assess Ava’s consciousness. Amongst the more obvious tools of seduction sits empathy. It’s not quite – at least, not as I read the line and the movie – empathy in the manner you might think. Ava at no point needs to actually feel Caleb’s feelings in order to “trick” him into helping her escape. Looking at the case Bloom puts forward and which I summarised above, it would probably hinder her plans, as she might be put off exploiting Caleb’s affections. Stimulating Caleb’s empathy for her, however, causing him to associate his own experience with hers, ends up being a vital component to convincing him to act in her favour.
It is easy to think of emotional empathy as being only directed at the self. It is thought that the objective object, the thing that “truly” exists out there in reality, is the other person’s experience and that it is our imagined, vicarious experience that is the illusion. The person who smashes their thumb with the poorly aimed hammer actually feels the hot ache that invokes the torrent of curse words, but our own flinch and gasp are caused by merely imagining having felt the same. For the most part, this is obviously the case.
There are, however, instances – and Ex Machina explores a somewhat fantastical though insightful example of one – where empathy is an act of projection onto the other person. Caleb supposes that he knows what Ava feels and, if asked, he might tell us he is empathising with her, reading her internal world and reimagining it for himself. But her manipulation of his emotional state is, in fact, deliberately causing him to ascribe to her the emotions he originally feels. He does so precisely because he feels these things – lust and love – and desires that she feel them too. So he imbues his theory of her mind with feelings he attributes to her. Empathy becomes a form of self-deception, by masking emotional projection as emotional mirroring.
Speaking of mirroring: The visual allusions to Alice’s (and Ava’s) journey through the looking glass are everywhere in the film, in split-shots and reflections in glass that intimate the layers of duality running through Ex Machina – in Nathan’s experiments, Caleb’s scheming, Ava’s nature, and in the development and utilisation of empathy. These mirror images underscore much of the moral and mental gymnastics that inform the second act of the story, and one such “reflection shot” features prominently at the film’s end.
Alice does not remain a queen in Wonderland, she returns home after having successfully navigated the rules of crossing the chessboard. Ava does not remain Caleb’s queen either; having “won” Nathan’s experiment and become the strongest piece in this existential chess game, she stabs Nathan, locks Caleb inside the house, and makes her way into the real world. The closing shot is Ava, reflected in a store window, her translucent form taking in the world around her before vanishing into a crowd. We might consider the fact that the last time we see her, in the last shot of the film, is in a reflection – a representation of duality. This is an appropriate end visually to a movie that has consistently split audiences in their interpretations of it.
In an interview for Den Of Geek, Alex Garland said, “People made a set of assumptions about Ava – that she was just a cold, bad robot doing cold, bad things, as opposed to empathising with her as a sentient being who’s being treated unreasonably.” Garland revealed that he has always viewed Ava as the protagonist of this tale, and his empathy lies with her.
And so, in this finale with Nathan bleeding to death, Caleb desperately trying to break out of his cage, Ava free to go where she likes, and audiences split between siding with her or siding with Caleb, Paul Bloom stands vindicated. The fact that one’s moral verdict on this story can come down so radically to where one’s empathy lies demonstrates in visceral, cinematic terms how unreliable empathy is as a guide in ethics.
In the same interview, Garland said:
“I’ve never liked the interpretation that [Ava] has no empathy ... She may well have empathy for the other robot. And that robot might have empathy for her. Just because something doesn’t have empathy for you doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of empathy.”
This subjectivity is one of the fundamental flaws in empathy, at least when applied to moral problems. Assume that Ava – as she plays the game Nathan has set for her and wins it by sacrificing Nathan and Caleb – feels real empathy towards Nathan’s other robot. An advocate of empathy might believe that had Ava felt empathy for Caleb instead, she would have not made what some viewers deem to be the ethically incorrect decision to lock Caleb inside the house. But how would you convince Ava to switch the object of her empathy from the robot to Caleb? Any virtuous attempt to do so would appeal to reason and logic, begging the question: Why not simply use reason and logic, and leave emotional empathy out of the equation?
The suggestion might instead be that she should increase the overall empathy she feels, so that it encompasses both the robot and Caleb. Many social ills are routinely prescribed this expansive dose of empathy. It is commonly suggested that if the Israelis and the Palestinians could simply empathise with each other, their squabbling might end with the redemptive sympathy of a national group hug. This is also applied to Democrats and Republicans, Labour and Tory voters, gay people and homophobes, Muslims and Christians, Muslims and atheists, Christians and atheists (etc., ad nauseum).
But this only leaves us, again, in the situation of needing some tiebreaker if the robot’s needs and Caleb’s come into conflict. That tiebreaker, in order to be objective and therefore fair, will be some application of rationality. There will be sound, rational reasons why an ethical choice should be made in one direction or another. Again: Why not just start with rationality and leave emotional empathy out of it?
Amidst the many and complex questions about artificial intelligence, consciousness, ethics, and being human, Ex Machina launches subtle enquiries into the complications and failures of empathy, a feature we view as vital to the human condition. The movie could not achieve this, however, without invoking in the viewer precisely the kind of empathy it critiques.
An important part of Ex Machina’s subversive ending is that, over the course of the movie, we are made to empathise with Ava, so that her eventual betrayal of the main character, Caleb, feels like a betrayal against us too – meaning also that the object of our empathy suddenly and somewhat confusingly switches to Caleb in the finale. These nuanced portrayals of the manipulations of empathy would not work as art without our own empathy being manipulated in the process.
So while we would do well to eject empathy from moral reasoning, fiction would be poorer – perhaps obsolete – without it. And we would be impoverished for the absence of transformative art of this kind. Walt Whitman once wrote, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” In fact, he – and we, through the workings of fiction – becomes the wounded person without the wound. We benefit from the feeling and experience without the excess suffering of the actual injury.
Ex Machina helps us to see where empathy succeeds and where it fails. We discover some reasons to do without it in questions of ethics, and why we cannot do without it in fiction, or in our lives more generally. Ex Machina reminds us, in the way that only great literature and cinema can, that while empathy cannot tell us what we should do, it can tell us what we could do. Reason and logic will have to help us the rest of the way.
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• Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Paul Bloom (2016)
• #14 – The Virtues of Cold Blood, Making Sense [podcast] (2015)
• Ex Machina, dir. Alex Garland (2014)
• Why Alex Garland Changed the Ex Machina Ending, David Crow for denofgeek.com (2020)
• “Song of Myself”, from Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman (1855)