Proponents of virtual reality like to claim that the immersive technology can provide “experience on demand,” as the title of Stanford researcher Jeremy Bailenson’s book puts it. It allows you to “wear the body of someone else,” he says in this talk at Google, which also means you can take it off when you feel like it, a luxury that reality doesn’t afford.

The on-demand aspect of virtual reality would seem to conflict with another common claim made about it, that it is an “empathy machine” that immersively and inescapably places the viewer in another person’s shoes and supposedly makes them feel what they must have felt. “Empathy” is an odd way to describe one of VR’s main applications thus far, as a military training technique to habituate soldiers to killing in combat. “There are some issues there,” Bailenson admits. But typically, in clinical studies, empathic viewers in training are exposed to someone else’s unfortunate condition and then tested afterward to see if they more willing to do something about it — often a matter of giving money, as though that were a universal mode of expressing concern rather than dismissing it. Bailenson describes immersing viewers in the experience of homelessness for seven minutes — how much more time would you need to simulate and understand another’s life? — which makes them more likely to sign a petition immediately afterward calling for more taxes to help the indigent.

Virtue, in the “witness” scheme, derives from surveillance. You have to see suffering to confirm that you’ll react with the proper degree of sympathetic emotion

But if we choose to have a particular experience, doesn’t that make it more a commodified consumer good rather than an ethics lesson? Or rather, doesn’t that mainly teach us that we can enjoy feeling ethical as an on-demand experience? This is why game developer Robert Yang describes VR not as an empathy machine but an “appropriation machine.” “If you won’t believe someone’s pain unless they wrap an expensive 360 video around you,” he writes, “then perhaps you don’t actually care about their pain … The ‘embodied’ ‘transparent immediacy’ of virtual reality (or much less, 360 video) does not obliterate political divisions.” Why is it so tempting to VR proponents to fantasize about a technology that renders politics superfluous? Why is it so easy to confuse a susceptibility to emotional experience with benevolence?


The presumption that empathy automatically produces virtue dates back at least to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1761), which opens with a disquisition on sympathy and propriety. As Smith theorized it, one witnesses another’s condition and immediately enters into a state of fellow feeling, even against one’s will. “In every passion of which the mind of man is susceptible, the emotions of the bystander always correspond to what, by bringing the case home to himself, he imagines should be the sentiments of the sufferer.” Virtue, in this scheme, derives from surveillance. You have to see suffering to confirm that you’ll react with the proper degree of sympathetic emotion.

But the word “imagine” in Smith’s formulation seems key: What you attribute to the other, and then use as a justification for feeling a certain way yourself, sounds a lot like projection. What the other actually feels is not relevant and there is certainly no need to respect their ultimately irreducible difference. Instead, the ready appropriation of their feelings becomes a kind of parallel to the invisible hand: Because we can’t help but feel what others feel, it thus becomes part of our selfish interest to make them feel better. “That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility.”

As the passage suggests, Smith’s theory derives from a strand of philosophy that postulated an inborn “moral sense” that allows us to instinctively understand what’s right and wrong.  The moral sense manifested mainly through a mastery of etiquette, making aristocratic habitus a proof of inherent virtue, and the commoner’s lack of it a proof of natural moral deficiency. Since instinctual emotions are benevolent, the stronger we feel them (and thus the more ostentatiously we display them), the more virtuous we are. From this point of view, morality becomes a spontaneous reaction rather than a process of ethical reasoning.

Though innate, the moral sense could be trained; becoming more “virtuous and humane” pivoted on learning to feel “with the most exquisite sensibility” through repeated exposure to a range of pitiable situations. In the late 18th century, the popularity of this idea in England led to the so-called cult of sensibility, an epoch in literary taste that accompanied the first flourishing of fiction as a commercial product. Sensibility “was a significant, an almost sacred word,” literature scholar J.M.S. Tompkins writes, a “modern quality” that was “the product of modern conditions,” which included broader literacy and the dissemination of cultured tastes that printing permitted.

Sensibility was never precisely defined but in general indicated a capacity for spontaneous vicarious feeling akin to the VR proponents’ idea of empathy. It was similar to the Renaissance notion of sprezzatura, an instinctual charisma and propriety, but was more passive, emphasizing finely wrought feelings in response to pitiable situations. It was a matter of spectatorship and reaction.

The sensibility era’s novels served as testing devices: If your heart didn’t respond, your moral sense might just be weak and you might not be as moral as you hoped

This connected it to the era’s burgeoning entertainment industry. “Sensibility” in practice became the emotion specific to reading, and novels and circulating libraries had begun to prosper by packaging emotional experiences for readers. The sensibility era’s novels — not only Henry Mackenzie’s fragmentary The Man of Feeling but also long, immersive five-volume epics by now forgotten writers like Courtney Melmoth and Frances Brooke — depicted situations designed to elicit strong and unrestrained emotional reactions, offering opportunity after opportunity for readers to demonstrate their “feeling heart” through vicarious identification and suffering.

As Tompkins points out, this often comes across now as more egotistic than altruistic: “Again and again we find that enormity of self-gratulation with which the weeper at once luxuriates in the beguiling softness of tears and compliments himself on his capacity for shedding them, seeing in his mind’s eye not only the object of his attention, but himself in a suitable attitude in front of it.” The “man of feeling” was essentially a connoisseur of beautiful sentiments — pity, sacrifice, charity, etc. — instrumentalized to demonstrate an inner worth that justifies his social position, or his pursuit of a better one.


At the time, the novels served as testing devices: If your heart didn’t respond, your moral sense might just be weak and you might not be as moral as you hoped. (What if that VR experience of a Syrian child refugee didn’t make you want to donate to UNICEF?) Fortunately, aspiring novelists (and readers) learned the grammar of emotional prose, the key words and scenarios that triggered the right feelings, the sympathetic tears that proved one’s inner worth.

Sensibility novels sought to teach readers how to read and enjoy them — and thus demonstrate their moral fitness — within the unfolding of the text itself. Often it was narrated as an organizing, driving force for the plot. Reading itself was often dramatized, as in epistolary novels, where you read over the shoulder of the characters and have modeled for you the emotional impact of reading. In Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1741), one encounters many scenes depicting other people reading; generally they are reading the very same text (Pamela’s letters and diaries) you have already read and demonstrate the appropriate level of responsiveness to it. They offer you a chance to test your reactions against theirs.

Books made it seem possible, even desirable, that we should have a world where our things strive to keep us apart, with nothing but abstracted genre conventions to connect us

More than any moral lesson, then, the book teaches you how to better consume books, and makes that seem like morality itself. They taught consumers how to enjoy things in solitude, taking aloneness and preventing it from becoming loneliness. They were instrumental in normalizing isolation, making it seem possible, even desirable, that we should have a world where our things strive to keep us apart from each other and absorbed in our own purely personal pleasures, with nothing but abstracted genre conventions — how scenes are stylized to make us feel for others — to connect us. People thus become morally legible only insofar as they conform to such genre expectations.

Reading meant removing yourself from social interaction to enter into a private fantasy world of pretend intimacy. To counter this, novelists tried to redeem novels with didactic content that taught them how to behave in society. They were covert conduct manuals made palatable and — as their defenders would eventually come to argue — more instructive through absorbing storytelling. Richardson’s Pamela evolved out of his Familiar Letters on Important Occasions, a manual that provided boilerplate form letters for the semiliterate to use. It dawned on him that teaching people what to write was an effective way to teach people how to think and, more important, what to feel.

But adding didacticism didn’t really solve the problem. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argued in “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” citing literary historian John Mullan, “the empathetic allo-identifications that were supposed to guarantee the sociable nature of sensibility could not finally be distinguished from an epistemological solipsism, a somatics of trembling self-absorption.” Or more plainly, if you felt what the characters in fiction feel, you still indulged in the same emotional short-circuit that bypasses the need for actual other people as a prerequisite for emotional pleasure. The novel (as is today claimed about VR and phones and other modes of immersive engagement) pre-empts the need for co-presence. The pleasures of sensibility, which supposedly proved one’s fitness for better society, could only be truly enjoyed in private. Readers adapted themselves to textual rather than social norms.


The tension between a private, intimate kind of pleasure and the sociability it is supposed to anchor is still with us. We are fully habituated to consuming other subjectivities as we prepare our own for consumption. In Cold Intimacies, sociologist Eva Illouz calls this middle-class specialty “emotional competence” — the ability to self-analyze and communicate one’s emotionality in terms that other bourgeois can understand and work with, as well as read each other’s emotions and respond in a constructive way. This habitus becomes a requisite qualification not only for personal relationships but for high-status jobs: Emotional competence becomes emotional capital. “There are now new hierarchies of emotional well-being, understood as the capacity to achieve socially and historically situated forms of happiness and well-being.” As with sensibility, however, emotional competence reifies emotionality, subjecting it to conscious manipulation. It freezes emotion even as it reveals us to ourselves as suitably emotional.

The same logic that makes VR capable of inducing empathy also has the effect of making empathy a commodity and producing it a technical skill. There is socioeconomic value in being able to manifest empathy as emotional competence. It indexes one’s potential as an emotional capitalist,  capable of opportunistically manipulating emotional states to achieve goals and accrue power. Rather than exercise the moral sense, our empathic reactions build a case against our virtue, showing instead how self-interested all our emotions turn out to be.