The Limits of Empathy

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It’s often presumed that empathy is a good thing, and that more of it will make us, and our country, considerably better. If only we could put ourselves into each other’s shoes more easily, so the thinking goes, we would have so much more respect and compassion for one another. Not only will we be more aware of the difficulties our fellow human beings go through, we will be less likely to criticize them unfairly when they do something we don’t like, and will begin to see similarities between our predicaments and theirs. At the national level, it is presumed, empathy will help us narrow our bitter cultural, social, ethnic, religious and political divides, showing us that we are all one big human family, or at least one big American family.

Is this really the case, though? Does feeling other people’s emotions, or otherwise putting ourselves in their shoes, really make us less inclined to be nasty, and more likely to be kind? It may seem so at first glance. But psychological research suggests that, unfortunately, this is not quite true– and indeed that, as discouraging as it sounds, less empathy might in some situations be better for us and for those around us.

I realize bringing this up makes me sound like a killjoy. I also realize that stressing the limits of a trait associated with goodness and kindness seems counter to the message and mission of Better Angels. But it is because I care about my country, because I want to do right by my fellow Americans, and because I believe we must be clearheaded about what will make us respect each other in order to decrease the level of polarization in America, that I will argue that empathy, while it has its virtues, is often not the best guide for our actions.

In 2016, psychologist Paul Bloom caused a stir with his book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. He pointed to studies showing that empathy often does not on balance increase the amount of goodwill in the world, and does not decrease the amount of suffering in many cases. In fact, it can sometimes lead to worse outcomes, as it builds upon humans’ natural tendency toward in-group preference—our tendency toward bias in favor of our own kind, making us even more tribal and less welcoming to outsiders. He argued that, as well-intentioned as many exhortations to empathy are, we humans could do much more good for our fellow humans if we embraced “rational compassion,” a genuine desire to do help others combined with a cost-benefit calculation of what can do the most good for the most people.

A recent article in Wired added to the list of reasons to be skeptical of empathy. Citing new research on political polarization published in the American Political Science Review, the article noted, “…this new study does more than find meager empathy for the out group. It finds that high-empathy people view the out group more unfavorably (relative to their own group) than low-empathy people; and that they may even take more delight in the suffering of some out-group members.” Far from being more likely than the less-empathetic to try and reduce suffering, “people prone to empathy are prone to schadenfreude.”

If we think about it long enough, and are really honest with ourselves, generally we are likely to empathize with our relatives, our friends, and others with whom we have something significant in common. As motivated as we may be to give money to help starving children or refugees or hurricane victims thousands of miles away whom we have never met and don’t really know anything about, how many of us can really say we care as much about those strangers as we do about our friends and family? This is not a bad thing; indeed, it would be worse if we didn’t care about the people close to us than we cared about the rest of the human species, wouldn’t it?

The calls for greater empathy that get the most attention often come from political progressives. One of the most widely-remembered sentences President Bill Clinton ever spoke was a reply to a heckler: “I feel your pain.” President Barack Obama bemoaned an “empathy deficit” in America, which he blamed for politicians’ inability or unwillingness to tackle gun violence. And when Senator Cory Booker testified against fellow Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be Attorney General (a rare step for a sitting Senator to take,) he stated that hoped for an Attorney General with a “more courageous empathy than Senator Sessions’ record demonstrates.” Given that the left is generally more closely associated than the right with calls for higher government spending and greater government protection for the poor, sick and vulnerable, this is not surprising.

But it is not only progressives who invoke empathy in their politics, even if they are more likely to use the word. Conservatives invoke the suffering of unborn children when opposing abortion rights, the hard work of entrepreneurs and capitalists when criticizing various business regulations, and the courage of military service members when calling for increases in defense spending. Empathy is not limited to any single portion of the left-right spectrum– people at each point on the spectrum are equally human, after all.

Even our differing conceptions of what it means to be an American can be couched in empathy. If you were born in the United States and feel a deep attachment to the country in terms of its territory and its traditions, you will probably find it easiest to empathize with your fellow native-born Americans. This does not mean you will necessarily dislike immigrants– on the contrary, immigrants who make a strong effort to assimilate into the American cultural mainstream are people you probably could think very highly of, and feel very friendly toward. But immigrants who don’t try to assimilate– as well as native-born Americans with a cosmopolitan mentality, who don’t feel particularly attached to the United States– will probably not get much empathy from you, even if you do your best to treat them fairly.

Similarly, if you don’t feel any particular attachment to the country you were born in, but do feel a deep attachment to your neighborhood, city, ethnic group, or other community with which a person can identify, you are not very likely to empathize with fellow Americans, if they don’t share these other characteristics with you, merely because they happen to be residents or citizens of your country.

In an America that is very diverse in many ways, that is getting more diverse every year (with all the attending opportunities for distrust and misunderstanding and loathing that entails) and whose political polarization is reaching a crisis level, genuine empathy for all our fellow citizens is too much to ask for. We are already deeply invested in many things in our lives, whether by necessity or because of a desire for fulfillment: work, commutes, relationships, family pressures, social lives, health concerns, and more. It is unreasonable to ask people to take time out of their busy days to try and feel the emotions of people very different from them, even if they happen to be fellow Americans. Respect and tolerance, a resolution to keep our biases in check and behave politely toward others regardless of how different from us they are, are enough. They must be enough.

Why am I, individually, wary of empathy in politics? It’s partly because of times in my politically-aware life when I’ve experienced a clash between my natural sympathies and my more cool-headed calculation of what’s good and right. There are groups of people I am inclined to side with over their opponents: striking workers, undocumented immigrants, police officers, public school teachers, Israeli soldiers, Kurds trying to create their own country, and more. Even though my siding with them has strong political implications, my sympathy for them is not dissimilar to my sympathy for a baseball team (go Phillies!) I am myself not part of the Phillies (my childhood self would have loved to pitch for them, but it wasn’t to be) but I do see enough of myself, or of people I care about, within the group for me to prefer it over, say, the Pirates or the Mets.

My reasons for rooting for the Phillies, police officers, public-school teachers, undocumented immigrants, Israeli soldiers, and all the rest vary, but in each case I find it instinctually difficult to part with them on a particular issue or dispute, even if I actually do disagree with them. I know intellectually that none of these groups is always in the right—they are just as human as anyone else. But I generally feel a twinge of regret if I end up taking the side of their opponents in any particular argument. If I am going to stand for what I believe to be right, rather than allow my biases to get in the way, it is far better if I put emotional attachments aside as best I can.

This is not to say that empathy is an entirely bad thing under all circumstances. On a one-on-one level, it is useful for understanding what an interlocutor is going through. As long as it does not lead you to make excuses for bad things a person you empathize with has done, it can help you get inside the person’s head, and help them through difficulties they might be experiencing.

Politics, however, is not a one-on-one undertaking. It’s about what’s best for the nation as a whole, and the bigger the nation, the more its politically active citizens should try and keep their empathy in check for the sake of doing right by all their fellow citizens. It will be difficult, and at times it may seem heartless or at least unfair. But it’s what our country needs.

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1 thought on “The Limits of Empathy”

  1. Tim Nightingale

    I saw this publication “against empathy” when it came out and still believe that empathy, in and of itself, is not the problem. Rather it is our inability to empathize with those who we understand to be our enemies. This combined with the assumption that empathy with victims naturally leads to a desire for revenge to be taken on behalf of the victim (which is not what all victims want) leads to an incomplete argument against empathy. It is like saying that a pencil is destructive because it is used to write bad words. Just because a tool is misused, doesn’t mean the tool is to blame.

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