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In Defense of Empathy

Is empathy a force for good or evil?

Empathy is a hot topic in psychology, philosophy, and public life, with many recommendations that moral behavior can be improved if people are more empathic and appreciate the feelings of others. Shockingly, Paul Bloom’s new book Against Empathy argues that empathy is not only overrated but actually harmful to morality. Although I think that empathy ultimately does contribute to ethics, Bloom makes some important points about its nature and value.

First, he carefully distinguishes the original, useful concept of empathy from much broader concepts. Empathy is not just recognizing the emotions of others such as suffering, but also requires feeling some approximation to what the other person feels. Compassion and sympathy are emotional reactions to the suffering of others but do not require you to suffer yourself. In contrast, empathizing for someone means that you do feel some aspects of the suffering. Bloom makes it clear that he is not against compassion, sympathy, kindness, and caring, just the supposition that they depend on feeling what the person you care about feels.

Second, Bloom thoroughly documents that empathy has serious limitations because it can be biased and narrow-minded. People leap into charitable action in response to vivid cases of suffering with which they can empathize, such as victims of violent crime in their own vicinity. But they ignore equally important cases of suffering that are not so close to them, such as massive amounts of famine overseas. Major ethical theories, both religious such as Christianity and secular such as utilitarianism, insist that morality should be universal, extending moral obligations to all people, not just to those you happen to have the opportunity to empathize with.

Moreover, empathy can be a bad strategy for caregivers such as doctors, nurses, and therapists, because it can lead to burnout and neglect of evidence-based solutions to people’s problems. Empathy can even be used directly for evil if a torturer uses identification with the suffering of the victim in order to inflict even more pain. So empathy is not a cure-all for moral failures.

Nevertheless, empathy does make important contributions to moral behavior in both facilitating ethical judgment and motivating appropriate actions. Bloom’s recommended alternative to empathy is rational compassion, but the route from rationality to compassion is problematic.

The ethical theories that currently are taken as guides to practical rationality are hard to apply. Utilitarianism and other forms of consequentialism say that what makes an action right or wrong is the effects it has on all relevant people. But calculating all of these effects with respect to the pain, pleasure, happiness, flourishing, or needs of everyone involved is a huge cognitive burden. Alternatively, deontology is an approach to ethics that uses principles based on rights and duties to prescribe actions, but these principles often come into conflict. For example, it is hard to be both honest and kind when a friend asks you whether an ugly new sweater looks good.

Alternatively, empathizing with people gives you a more direct route to figuring out how you should treat them, encouraging application of the golden rule to treat others as you want to be treated yourself. You don’t want to suffer like the person with whom you are empathizing, so it is easy to see that the suffering is wrong. Compassion arises more naturally from empathy than from deductive reasoning.

Moreover, identification with victims makes it much easier to motivate good actions than can be done via rational abstractions of consequentialism and deontology. Just reasoning about consequences and principles does not have the emotional force for action that comes from caring for someone via empathy.

The universality of ethics can be fostered through practicing the deliberate mode of empathy in addition to the automatic mode, which I distinguished in an earlier post. The automatic mode operates through unconsciously mimicking physiological states through facial expressions and body language. The deliberate mode is conscious and verbal, using words to draw parallels between the situation of another person and your own experience. This process can easily generalize to a wide range of people, not just the particular person who is suffering.

Such generalizations are the basis for the contributions that literature has made to social change by helping people to appreciate the situations of others apparently different from themselves. Here are some great books that have expanded people's circles of morality through empathizing with their characters: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Les Misérables, The Grapes of Wrath, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Black Like Me.

Bloom helpfully points out that literary empathy is not always a good thing, for example, if someone empathizes with Hitler in Mein Kampf and decides to become a Nazi. But overall, despite its limitations, I think that empathy has contributed to moral understanding and behavior much more than it has cost.

For full effect, empathy needs to be combined with reason based on consequences and principles to improve how humans treat each other. Empathy without reason is blind, but reason without empathy is empty.