Debunking “The Age of Empathy”?

Critics cite contrary evidence. Maybe empathy is not enough.

Posted Oct 03, 2011

In an op-ed piece in The New York Times the other day, columnist David Brooks debunked the current "age of empathy" craze -- or at least the claims that empathy makes a significant difference in how we behave toward one another.  Though most of us (not all) experience feelings of compassion toward others, Brooks acknowledges, "The problem comes when we try to turn feelings into action...It's not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action...It doesn't seem to help much when that action comes at personal cost." 

Brooks cites a recent review of the scientific research by philosopher Jesse Prinz, who concluded that "These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation."  Brooks concurs and echoes the naysayers who have called empathy a "fragile flower" that can easily be crushed by self-concern.  Brooks gives more weight to "a sense of duty" that is dictated by social, moral, religious, or military codes.  He concludes that "empathy is a sideshow."  We need, instead, to debate, reform, enact and "revere" our ethical codes.

Well, it's not quite that simple.  The truth may lie in a more complex, and subtle, middle-ground.  In the first place, you'll note that the philosopher quoted by Brooks said only that the studies he reviewed "suggest" that empathy is a minor factor. That's a classic "weasel word" for a finding that is far less than conclusive.  In fact, there are other studies that suggest the opposite - that empathy is a significant causal factor in our social and moral behavior.  A more nuanced interpretation is that empathy is necessary but may not be sufficient.  There are many other factors influencing our social behavior as well.

Consider this.  "Prohibition" - the shameful episode in our history recounted in the new Ken Burns TV series - imposed a strict "moral code" with disastrous consequences.  A similar disconnect exists with the Catholic ban on birth control measures versus Catholic practice.  Sometimes, in fact, our sense of fairness and empathy toward others stands in stark opposition to the prevailing "codes." Just think about the codes in our history that condoned slavery, racial discrimination, and the subjugation of women.  Likewise, stealing is a crime everywhere, and most people support this prohibition in principle.  But in a repressive and exploitative society that has extremes of wealth and deep poverty, the sympathies of many of us lie with the Robin Hoods and Zorros, who steal from the rich and give it to the poor.

In short, a moral code that does not also evoke our sense of compassion and fairness toward others is like a song without the lyrics (or maybe vice versa).  But this is only the starting point, because many other factors do, indeed, influence our feelings of empathy (we can be quite selective about it), and what we do about it, if anything.  In the first place, variation is the rule in nature, and human personalities are no exception. There is good evidence that some 25-30 percent of us are more or less empathy and fairness-challenged.  Empathy is also highly susceptible to the "we-they" dichotomy in human behavior (and morality).  Thus, "thou shalt not kill" does not apply to our "enemies" or, for many of us, convicted murderers.

Indeed, we are, as a rule, more likely to feel empathy toward somebody who is close to us, or like us, and to develop negative stereotypes to rationalize behaviors that align with our self-interests.  Much of the antagonism in some circles to our safety net these days is fueled and justified by claims that the poor are (a) illegal immigrants, (b) lazy free-loaders and/or (c) drug addicts who do not deserve our charity. 

And yet, a full accounting has to include the many millions of people who more or less anonymously donate billions of dollars each year to the victims of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and terrorist attacks.  In these cases, empathy is quite enough as a motivator for "costly" action, and it directly challenges Brooks's claim that empathy is a weak flower that predictably succumbs to our self-interest.  By the same token, even in the absence of formal ethical "codes", our charitable actions are powerfully influenced by our social norms and expectations -- by the "praise and blame" of others around us, as Darwin put it in The Descent of Man.

In sum, empathy is alive and well, but it needs constant nurturing.  That is the task before us.