To most of us, the idea that empathy is a good thing is a no brainer. The more we empathize with the plight of others, the more ethical and moral we behave towards them. Yet a number of psychologists and philosophers reject this view. Empathy is "narrow-minded, parochial, and innumerate" claimed Paul Bloom, a Yale professor of Psychology in a recent New Yorker article (May 20, 2013). According to Jesse Prinz, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at City University in New York “…empathy is prone to biases that render moral judgment potentially harmful.”
Academics who distrust empathy seek to improve public policy by making us aware of inherent biases in human reasoning. As Bloom and Prinz point out, people have very different reactions to the suffering of individuals than to the suffering of unseen groups. We are happy to donate to save an individual but not willing to raise our taxes to save larger numbers of people. Because of this inherent “bias” in human nature, these critics argue, empathy is at best a starting point—a motivation to get us thinking—but then reason and deliberation should take over and dominate the subsequent discussion, judgment, or policy-making.
As reasonable as this argument may seem, it is really an argument for throwing the baby out with the bathwater—with equally disastrous consequences. Here is why.
The desire to censure empathy stems from the belief that empathy and other emotions necessarily lead to anarchy and retributive justice, while reason necessarily leads to order and good judgment. Yet sufficient evidence from the annals of human history plainly shows that reason, untempered by empathy, is just as likely to lead to tyranny and genocide as it is to lead to good judgment. When compassion and reason are decoupled, judgment is not improved. Instead, the door is opened to inhumane practices.
Human history is replete with examples of principle-based atrocities. The reasoning underlying genocide and "ethnic cleansing" seems perfectly logical to people who subscribe to a twisted belief system—bring about a "greater good" by "cleansing" the world of "bad" people—but it's empathetically bankrupt. What drives and sustains the suicide bomber? The belief in the purity of his principles, principles that require one to blind oneself to the suffering and carnage of the innocents at his mercy.
It was the cold light of reason—based of course on false beliefs—that gave us laws permitting slavery, burning human beings at the stake, and bear baiting as a form of entertainment. It was empathy for the victim that ended these practices. It is empathy that prevents a man from beating his wife when the law in some countries fully permits (or even requires) him to do so. It is empathy for the victim that brought us the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and the scores of other humanitarian organizations that grace our world. It is empathy that makes us want to rescue victims, and it is empathy that prevents us from killing their tormenters—despite our rage and lust for retributive justice.
As examples of how empathy leads to bad social policy, Bloom pointed to laws written from the perspective of the victim. He wrote
"On many issues, empathy can pull us in the wrong direction. The outrage that comes from adopting the perspective of a victim can drive an appetite for retribution. (Think of those statutes named for dead children: Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, Caylee’s Law.)"
Yet laws like "Megan's Law" are not the outcomes of irrational decision-making, nor are they are they the outcomes of valorizing emotion while downplaying reason. These laws are meant to legitimately recognize the particularly heinous nature of crimes by the strong against the most vulnerable members of society. Such a position hardly flies in the face of rationality.
It is up to reason to determine whether an action conforms or fails to conform to some set of principles. It is also up to reason to determine whether some set of principles is consistent. But it is beyond reason by itself to determine whether one set of internally consistent principles is morally superior to another. For that, one needs something else. Current moral theories are driven by precisely this attempt to bring our principles and our "intuitions" into equilibrium with one another.
To Bloom, empathy belongs only to the realm of the personal—how, for example, we treat our family and friends. But it has no role to play in moral judgment. Morality from this perspective isn't about the creature in front of you, it is about society as a whole. That is what morality looks like from a high-altitude bombing perspective.
We can certainly see all mankind as our family. The problem is that we don't. Volumes of psychological research show that we show more empathy towards those who are like us than those who are not. The answer is not to scrub out empathy. The answer is to expand our empathy to include those who are not like us. That is what drove so many white Americans to argue for the abolition of slavery, the end of Jim Crow laws, and the institution of civil rights.
The way that has worked best is to point out the similarities between ourselves and those who are suffering—to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Even though I do not look like you or act like you, nonetheless I am like you when it comes to the capacity for suffering, and so I deserve to be treated the same as you. It is precisely our ability to imagine the plight of the nameless and faceless that elicits our empathy and our desire to act. What diminishes one’s ability to empathize? Power over others: When people are primed to feel powerful, they display less empathy-related mirror neuron activity in their brains than when they are primed to feel powerless.
As a final admonition, Bloom warned “empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future”. Instead, it is the marriage of empathy to principle that has always been and will continue to be our salvation. It is our ability to generalize and to direct our empathy through the use of reason that is our saving grace. Without that, it is easy to create a holocaust, a crusade, or a jihad.
Copyright Denise Cummins October 20, 2013
Dr. Denise Cummins is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Dr. Robert Cummins, co-author of this article, is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of California-Davis.