Dr. Gregory House and the Bad Decisions We Make Because Empathy

I was re-watching some old House episodes on Netflix recently, and there was an episode where one of the patients is a woman with heart issues caused by bulimia. I don’t remember the particular details of how her issues go from Super Mysterious Oh My God On What Is Going On to that specific diagnosis, but they’re not really important. What is important as we get almost to the end of the episode, past the point where we’ve developed some familiarity and empathy with this patient, and House ends up faced with the decision of whether or not to recommend that she be moved to the top of the list of those waiting for a heart transplant in spite of the fact that bulimia makes her a higher-risk candidate for it.

In the end, he has a Deep, Heartfelt Talk with her where she agrees to Do Better, and House decides not to tell the transplant board* about her bulimia.

This is the wrong decision. Putting this patient at the top of the list means putting other patients who need transplants just as badly lower down on the list. These other patients are, presumably, better candidates for transplants, meaning they have a better chance of surviving after they are done with the procedure. They are getting fucked over because of House’s decision. They may be just as in need as the woman in the episode, but House decides the best decision is to risk their lives so that this woman can get a transplant first. He makes this decision even though those other people are more likely to benefit from the procedure than she is. It’s the wrong decision, but it’s a narratively compelling one.

We want everything to be okay, we want this woman to be okay, and so it’s easy to feel like she should be moved to the top of the list because we feel for her and want her to be okay.

You never see the episode of House where he figures out that someone needs a transplant and signs them up for it and then that person dies because some other doctor and some other hospital decided that their riskier patient needed a transplant first. That aspect doesn’t help the narrative; it doesn’t allow us to feel good about the fact that this patient is someone we care about and we’ve just got to help her somehow. In real life, though, those other patients are just as real and just as in need as the one that any individual person might identify with any given moment.

Just because we feel for someone doesn’t mean that the people we don’t directly feel for as much aren’t important, or that they don’t thrive or suffer to the same degree. It doesn’t mean they don’t matter. It doesn’t mean we can disregard them in favor of the people close to us no matter what the circumstances are.

Which brings me to veganism.

Which brings me to the fact that if you are uncomfortable eating cats or dogs** but you are comfortable eating pigs and cows, your decision to eat the latter but not the former is irrational. It is the same type of irrational that I have just described in House. If you aren’t comfortable eating animals you might keep as pets but you are comfortable eating ones that you probably wouldn’t, you don’t actually care about how much suffering and/or death your decisions in this regard cause. You only care about it insofar as you, personally, feel empathy for it.

This is totally understandable in the same way that feeling empathy for the woman in the House episode and wanting her to be okay is totally understandable. It’s normal, it’s natural, it’s human, but don’t think for a second that it doesn’t mean a lot of suffering and death is happening purely on the basis of which creatures you think it’s adorable to have around and which ones you don’t.


*Or whatever the group of people who makes the decision is actually called.

**Personally, I would add “or people” to this list, but people seem less able to believe that animals can suffer as much as we*** do than they are able to believe that they suffer as much as “other animals” (in spite of the evidence that they do, in fact, suffer like we do), so I’ll leave that bit in this footnote instead.

***who are, you know, also animals

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By ResearchToBeDone Posted in other

One comment on “Dr. Gregory House and the Bad Decisions We Make Because Empathy

  1. I’ve brought up this same idea when people (racistly) decry the eating of what they see as pets in other countries. I have a cat and can’t really imagine a situation where I would voluntarily eat her, but that’s just because I snuggle her. I don’t think for a second that there’s a difference between eating her and eating all the pigs and cows and chickens and such that I’ve happily consumed. Haven’t gotten great responses to that idea when I’ve brought it up, but that just reaffirms the point.

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