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Mario Livio Ph.D.

On the Lack of Empathy

Empathy may not be a panacea for all of society's problems, but it can help.

In his book, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty, British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen referred to empathy — the capacity to feel an emotional resonance with others — as a “universal solvent,” because, in his words, “any problem immersed in empathy becomes solvent.” Examining President Trump’s response to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests following George Floyd’s death, it now appears that sadly, in addition to an apparently engrained science denial, he has exhibited an unfortunate lack of empathy.

Instead of using the opportunity to demonstrate a caring sympathy for the deep distress of many Americans, a sympathy which could have helped in bringing people together, many of the President’s reactions were rather divisive. Ignoring a plea from his own healthcare team, he politicized even the simple act of wearing a face mask, and he did not hesitate to brand the protesters “thugs.” As the pandemic was raging all across the southern part of the U.S., the President all but ignored it for weeks in his public statements and tweets. At the same time, he deployed federal troops to confront those who protested against racial injustice in Portland, Oregon, even though Portland’s Mayor, Ted Wheeler, specifically said that the presence of these troops was “sharply escalating the situation.”

Could one explain at least part of this lack of empathy (not that this would justify it) simply as an expression of extreme capitalistic views? Not really. Even economist and philosopher Adam Smith, who is sometimes called the “Father of Capitalism,” wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that when we see someone’s arm or leg being hit, “we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer.” Smith called this “our fellow feeling.”

The lack of empathy that Trump displays may also be one of the reasons for the fact that his charitable giving falls far short of those of billionaires with a similar net worth (and much shorter of his own boasts about his philanthropy, as a number of investigations show). The unprecedented act of printing Trump’s name on the stimulus checks sent to tens of millions of Americans by the Internal Revenue Service seems to be a similar attempt to take credit for an apparently nonexistent vicarious feeling.

Perhaps nothing shines a brighter light on narcissism and empathy deficit than a comparison of the President’s statements with a compassionate statement made by the great Alsatian physician and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, who founded a hospital at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa (today in Gabon), and spent decades of his life there: “Physical misery is great everywhere out here. Are we justified in shutting our eyes and ignoring it because our European newspapers tell us nothing about it? We civilized people have been spoilt. If any one of us is ill the doctor comes at once…But let every one reflect on the meaning of the fact that out here millions and millions live without help or hope of it. Every day thousands and thousands endure the most terrible sufferings, though medical science could avert them.”

In my humble opinion, the bottom line appears to be quite clear. We don’t need pretension of empathy. Politics are unfortunately full of that. But the capacity to not alienate people seems to be an overt prerequisite for any president. There is no question that empathy can provide at least some measure of remedy to a deeply divided society.


About the Author

Mario Livio, Ph.D. is an astrophysicist, bestselling author of Galileo: And the Science Deniers and a popular speaker who has appeared on The Daily Show, 60 Minutes, and NOVA.