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The War on Empathy


Take a look at the meaning of the word empathy. Ruminate on its definition—“the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It is the light by which we may call forth the best qualities of our fellow Americans, and in so doing, call forth the best in ourselves. One would not think this could be controversial. But it is.

There is something subversive in empathy that makes it threatening to certain social status-quos. Most political coalitions are based, to some degree, on the dehumanization of their opponents. Some find empathy to be antithetical to the pursuit of justice. To others, empathy is the virtue of the morally irresolute. In a time when some politicians relentlessly insult their opponents on Twitter while others encourage their supporters to harass opponents in public places, empathy may not always strike everyone as a self-evident good.

It is good to understand why empathy seems to frustrate, disappoint, or even offend its critics, precisely because it is a virtue worth defending.

‘Empathy’ is a relatively new addition to the English language, and its introduction into our vocabulary was a deliberate one. Scarcely more than a century ago, English speaking psychologists sought to determine a translation of the German psychological term Einfühlung, meaning “feeling-in.” After a number of different alternatives were considered, psychologists from Cambridge and Cornell offered the word empathy, drawing on the Greek “em” (meaning “in”) and the latin “pathos” (meaning feeling).

Thus, empathy is not a virtue with an explicit Biblical, philosophical, or even pre-20th century cultural lineage. It is not a term, for instance, that Martin Luther King, Jr. used. We can easily argue, of course, that the idea of empathy is implicit in the virtues of love, compassion, and understanding, and in the idea of sympathy. Adam Smith, in fact, wrote that the basis of morality was our ability to imagine “changing places in fancy with the sufferer.” But despite these analogues, it would be fair to say that we are building the explicit traditions around empathy as a virtue of civil and social interaction as we speak.

To the extent that the concept of empathy has taken on a cultural context in America, conservative Americans have had some reason to distrust its usage. As a foreign word introduced to us by  academic elites, not explicitly connected to any pre-existing moral or cultural American traditions, and having, in recent decades, often been utilized by left-leaning politicians to argue for a culture of inclusivity that sometimes can be hostile to traditionalists, the elevation of the idea of empathy can seem like a Trojan horse of sorts for conservatives.

President Barack Obama, in fact, placed high value on empathy as a virtue—even in the context of selecting judicial nominees. As a United States Senator, Obama said of President Bush’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, later to be Chief Justice, John Roberts, that while he respected Roberts’ integrity and ability and would trust his judgement in 95% of cases, “In those five per cent of hard cases, the constitutional text will not be directly on point. The language of the statute will not be perfectly clear. Legal process alone will not lead you to a rule of decision,” and instead, “the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart.”

President Obama’s ‘empathy doctrine’ emerged as an issue of contention during the confirmation proceedings of his own first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor. The President was on the record as citing “empathy” as a core consideration of his judicial appointees. Conservative thinker Charles Krauthammer identified this principle, in a judicial context at least, as striking against not merely sound jurisprudence but against the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“…outside of every courthouse in America you’ve got a statue of justice wearing a blindfold. And that means that justice ought to be entirely blind and unconcerned about the actual identity of the parties in a case. And empathy is the opposite of that…Justice is not about empathy, it’s about equal treatment of people under the law and the constitution. And secondly we do not judge our defendants on the basis of ethnicity, or gender or race and that’s a core principle. It’s the overturning of the idea of Martin Luther King, of justice being about the content of the character and not about the identity of race, that we lost over these past 50 years.”

Krauthammer’s criticism of the application of empathy as a judicial standard was born from a reasonable concern for judicial integrity. Obama’s original criticism of John Roberts was that, while a capable judge, Roberts showed himself to be insensitive to the plight of those less powerful who had come before his bench, leading him to use “his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak.” But what do strength and weakness have to do with justice?

In his conversation with my Braver Angels colleague Ciaran O’Connor, progressive political analyst Ezra Klein expressed concern over what he perceived to be the tendency of depolarization work (defined as building cross-partisan empathy through inter-group contact) to compromise the integrity of our political convictions, insomuch as it has the potential to make us less responsive to matters of injustice. “There isn’t some way to easily cut the anger and heat and outrage people feel in politics from the stakes themselves in politics.”

Klein continues:

“…there is a kind of participation paradox around deliberation. The more you get people to deliberate on political issues, see all sides, the less motivated they become to participate. Because the thing that motivates a lot of people to participate is seeing one side… in general that’s why it’s very hard to build moderate, modest, temperamentally open-minded political movements. It’s why political movements tend to be based on heat and fury, not gentleness and approach.”

Braver Angels leaders, including myself, have responded recently to criticisms, levied by liberal writers in The Washington Post, of the ‘love politics’ of Braver Angels, a politics that “flattens anger,” eliminating the righteous anger necessary to oppose injustice, according to such criticism. We have also drawn attention to the critical writings of Sohrab Ahmari against the over-emphasis on “pluralism” and “civility and decency” by David French, qualities he claimed were dulling conservatism’s ability to “recognize that enmity is real…”

People have many reasons for thinking that empathy corrupts good judgment and moral purpose.  While many feel that war exists as a consequence of our lacking empathy for those who suffer in war, others have argued that bloody wars of revenge or humanitarian motives are frequently a tragic consequence of empathy itself, by focusing us in on the suffering of a small group of victims to the disregard of a much larger number that would suffer in a war to protect them. Similarly, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, author of the book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, states that “My beef [with] empathy in particular, [is] with its role in decision making.” Empathy is good for one on one relationships where the connectedness it leads us to feel causes us to treat one another better. However, “the real world is nowhere near as simple.” Empathy “zooms you in” to the suffering of the few persons you can most easily relate to, or so Bloom argues, “and for that reason empathy is biased.”

This is demonstrated plainly in a study cited by the philosopher Peter Singer in which subjects familiarized with the story of one suffering child were far more willing to donate to support her than they were to donate the same amount to eight suffering children whose stories they could not absorb (empathy is more easily achieved with individuals than groups.) Bloom and others argue that empathy is much more readily shared with in-groups than with out-groups, leading to tribal conflict. Thus, empathy in fact tends to divide us more than it unites us, according to this point of view.

What all these arguments against empathy have in common is the sense that empathy is limited in the good that it may do, but expansive in the damage it is capable of. This is because empathy, they suppose, distorts our moral reasoning in a way that makes us lose sight of the larger moral and social contexts in which we live.

Within Braver Angels, and increasingly within the larger American depolarization movement, we think about the idea of patriotic empathy— the idea that our love of country is reflected in the understanding and concern we demonstrate in our relationships with one another. There is a connection here, then, between the moral obligation practitioners of empathy have to connect with each other’s humanity, and the obligation we have as Americans to seek the good of our country. In the context of this burgeoning movement to restore stability to American political life, forge a sense of shared American identity, and cultivate constructive relationships between the American people, empathy is crucial.

The tendency of empathy to narrow one’s moral vision towards the good of a single person or a small group, in our view anyway, can and should be broadened into a fuller understanding of one’s relationship to other groups within the American community, which can further be informed by a deeper empathy with individuals from these groups. This opens up our ability to listen to, communicate with, and imagine avenues of cooperation for the common good, with other Americans in groups far outside our immediate in-group, distributed broadly across the political and social spectrum.

But we must argue for empathy’s moral value and utility, because of the multitude of arguments being advanced against it. It is important for us to demonstrate that empathy works in a practical way, and makes the country better not merely by healing our individual relationships with our fellow Americans, but by healing and priming the country for better things.

It is hard to imagine any human organization that is not better served by the presence of some fellow-feeling between its individuals and groups, whether in a marriage, a business, army or nation. Empathy sets the basis for understanding, and by opening room for understanding, sets the basis for trust. This fraternal feeling across party lines was much stronger in earlier, more functional periods of American politics when government was more stable and more productive. Furthermore, the moral and legislative progress surrounding Civil Rights in one of those eras of American government was made possible by a non-violent movement rooted in the principle of loving one’s enemies, a love which King described as “understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill.” The virtue of empathy is baked in to this idea.

To contradict Paul Bloom, who describes compassion as disconnected from empathy, virtues like love and genuine compassion are impossible without empathy. This is suggested by the very etymology of the word compassion (compassio is Latin, meaning to ‘suffer with.’) If it is true that empathy spurs us towards showing disproportionate concern for those with whom we most readily share it—our in-groups—then the task before us would seem to be to expand the circle of our empathy so as to include those who fall beyond it. Perhaps this is progressively more difficult as the distances between our respective views and experiences widen. But that is not a reason to stand down from the project of empathy—it is a reason to engage in it more fully.

Empathy is not a value to replace all values. It is not entirely an end unto itself in the context of our social and political strivings. Yet we believe that patriotic empathy stands indispensably at the foundation of a more moral society, one in which goodwill pervades our common efforts to uplift our fellow Americans and serve and love our country. The great proof of this will be in our efforts to bring this more moral society to fruition. Join us, and see it done.

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