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Empathy Under Attack

Empathy is the gateway to ethics

The Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,' is at the heart of all religions. Why then the NY Times on a tear about empathy? First, there is David Brook's article "The Limits of Empathy," followed three days later by Natalie Angier's "The Pathological Altruist Gives Till Someone Hurts."

Brooks is bothered by the "empathy craze," where rows of bookshelves are filled with empathy this and empathy titles. Angier, meanwhile, points out that empathy's close cousin altruism can lead to self-righteous and harmful behavior.

This empathy backlash reminds me of the assault against self-esteem that flared several years ago and still has some targeting it as a source of contemporary malaise. In both instances, there is an element of truth in the charge but it obscures a larger truth and that is that fundamentally self-esteem and empathy are essential ingredients for an ethical life.

Anything stretched too far can lead to problems. Virtue, as Aristotle pointed out, is often the midpoint between extremes. A vice can be either an insufficiency or a surfeit of a quality. For example, in the middle lies courage, with cowardice at one end of the spectrum and foolhardiness at the other.

The assault on empathy focuses only at the extreme and in doing so slights the importance of the emotion. Brooks' discomfort is that a concern for another's feelings doesn't necessarily motivate you to take action or prevent you from taking immoral action. He writes, "Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn't help much when that action comes at a personal cost." That may be, but what direction would Brooks prefer that you be oriented? Without empathy in the first place there is little motivation for most to even try to do the right thing.

Empathy is the basis of caring. And if you don't care about another's fate, there is little reason to take action on his or her behalf. There are exceptions. Studies of moral heroes, people engaged in prolonged pro-social behavior, indicate that only about 10% are motivated by ethical principles.

There are also times in which people do the right thing for the wrong reason, such as the philanthropist whose only concern is to see his name on the side of the children's hospital. Fame and prestige are occasional motivators for good. Their money goes to good causes because society has already defined those beneficiaries as worthy of generosity. Society lays the groundwork of empathy so that others may participate even if they themselves do it for other, less lofty reasons.

Empathy can be weakened by self-concern or social pressure. This is where the other psychological factor comes into play for an ethical life. Someone with a good sense of self-esteem can balance self-regarding and other-regarding behavior. Healthy self-esteem says that I am no less than another but neither are others less than me.

Angier's concern is different than Brooks. She isn't concerned about the weakness of the emotion but about altruism run amok. She points out that good deeds can be taken to the extreme. Here the desire to help can become the need to control, where the impetus to generosity becomes the source of sanctimony. On this account, altruism is the source of dogmatism, righteous indignation, even hoarding and anorexia ("They barely feel they have the right to exist themselves.").

Laying all these personal and social problems at the feet of altruism is misplaced. Being too sensitive can be a problem ("I can't bear to know because I'll be overwhelmed" -willful ignorance) and caring more for others than oneself can also create problems ("Who am I to enjoy myself when others in this world are suffering so?"-a sense of unworthiness).

But the larger problem we face isn't an excess of empathy and altruism but a death of both. Not caring and a lack of generosity plague is far more than their opposites. What a world it would be if we had to say to those running Wall Street, "Stop thinking about others so much?" Or if worthy charities called to say, "Will you please stop sending us so much money?" Or hospitals didn't have to appeal for blood and organ donors?

Empathy isn't a sideshow, as Brooks maintains. And pathological altruism is interesting to think about but it is rare. What is true and far more important is that empathy is necessary but not a sufficient condition for a good life. Feelings need to be transformed into action. But without being able to feel another's pain, without the impulse to help, the world would be a colder and crueler place.