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Thomas E. Wartenberg, Ph.D.

Thomas E Wartenberg Ph.D.


The Limits of Empathy

Morality needs more than that

In my last blog post, I talked about a video of two-second grade children in my Teaching Children Philosophy program, who are shown discussing ethical issues arising from The Giving Tree. I pointed out that each of them empathized with one of the two characters in the book – the boy and the tree. If we were concerned with the question of whether the boy’s repeated requests that the tree give him more of itself was morally acceptable, we had to think about more than the question of with character we could empathize with, for the second graders established the possibility of empathizing with both of them.

In the May 20, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom agreed with my point. In reviewing a spate of recent books advocating the importance of empathy, Bloom concludes that empathy can only get us so far. He points out that empathy works to move us out of ourselves, but its range is quite limited. We can often feel empathy for specific individuals who have suffered terribly – such as James “Bim” Costello whose picture showing him staggering from the Boston Marathon bomb site was plastered in newspapers and the web. But it’s a lot harder to feel empathy for nameless victims who are only reported in the news media as statistics.

This is why Bloom rejects empathy as an adequate grounds for morality. It won’t get us to take seriously the ethical issues that face us most squarely. Why is it so difficult to get people and politicians to realize the seriousness of the ecological crisis we are facing. Well, for one thing, there are no clear victims whose pictures can be used to pinpoint the devastation that will likely engulf the planet if we heedlessly continue to adhere to our energy guzzling and ecology destroying lifestyles. So who or what can we empathize with?

The point is that we need to move beyond empathy in grounding our attitudes and actions if we are to deal with the really serious crises that face us as a global community. I’ve mentioned global warming, but genocide and many other serious moral disasters can’t adequately be recognized on the basis of empathy alone. While empathy might be an important aspect of the emotional development of human beings that enables them to act morally within their local communities, it can’t be relied upon to do more than it is equipped to. When it comes to large scale moral, social, and political concerns, empathy is a non-starter. It won’t save us or the planet from devastation.

It’s for this reason that Bloom ends his article with this statement: “But empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.” I can only second his statement. What’s interesting to me is that we don’t have to turn to highly intellectual critiques of books endorsing empathy as the grounds of morality in order to recognize its shortcomings: Just paying attention to what second graders say in response to a picture book is an equally good way to learn about empathy’s powers and limitations.


About the Author

Thomas E. Wartenberg, Ph.D.

Thomas E. Wartenberg, Ph.D., is a philosophy professor at Mount Holyoke College.