Longtime readers of this blog know that I have consistently found fault with the therapy culture’s obsession with empathy.
If you care about your mental hygiene you should be skeptical of anyone who recommends a one-size-fits-all cure for all of mankind’s ills.
Empathy mongers pretend that if we had more feeling for those more disadvantaged, we would naturally be inclined to offer them more help, more comfort and more solace.
More empathy, the tell us, would motivate us to help out. Invariably, they want us to fund the right government programs, to contribute to the right charities and to cease bullying our friends and neighbors.
For those who limit moral behavior to handing out charity to the less fortunate, empathy is the way to go. Without it, many contend, we would have no motive to do the good deeds that show how much we care.
Of course, there is a significant difference between actions that are supposed to show that we care… thus that provide us an opportunity to exhibit our empathy… and actions that really provide a benefit.
If a food aid program puts local farmers out of business its recipients will become dependent on the kindness of strangers. Do those who propose such programs show more or less empathy than do those who want to invest more in local agribusiness?
You can measure the effectiveness of programs far more easily than you can measure the state of the human heart.
We are so enamored of empathy that we take it as an article of faith that the human enterprise that raises people from poverty is less moral than the do-goodism that keeps people in it.
To recall a recent discussion, over the past thirty years that Chinese government has reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty from 84% to 16%. When it comes to feeding people, free market capitalism, Chinese style has done more than all of the world’s NGOs combined.
Were China’s leaders motivated by empathy or by a wish not to repeat he famine that Maoism loosed on the people in the early 1960s? Did they want to feed people because they wanted to hold on to power or because they felt for the poor? Did they want to cure extreme poverty because they wanted to restore national pride or because they felt badly for poor Chinese peasants? Did they care about the people or did they want to avoid the loss of face that would attend their failure to fulfill their duty?
Even if we grant the argument that empathy tells you to do something, it does not tell you what to do or how to do it. Empathy is no more than an inchoate feeling. It cannot and does not chart the most effective course of action.
In today’s New Yorker Paul Bloom makes “The Case Against Empathy.” Offering a thoughtful review of the recent literature on the subject, most of which makes it into a panacea, he concludes that empathy’s powers have been overrated.
Those who argue for empathy note that people tend to react quickly and decisively when they see a child in danger. They tend to contribute generously to the human victims of a tragedy.
Yet, when the pain does not have a human face, and when we cannot see it within the context of a larger drama, we are less likely to act.
Bloom argues that this approach is limiting, and even deceiving. Most of the world’s suffering does not have a face attached. We can only see it in cold, dry statistics. If statistics show that children are being killed in a war somewhere, we are less likely to care. If it’s our neighbor’s child we are more likely to care.
One is tempted to reply that perhaps it is normal for humans to care more for their own than for strangers. If your neighbor’s house is burning down, you do not ignore it in favor of malnutrition in South Asia.
It’s nice to think that the human species is one big happy family, but membership in family, community and nation is of vital importance. Cosmopolitanism is one of our grandest contemporary illusions.
Besides if you feel morally obligated to care for a stranger’s family you are also saying that the stranger is incompetent to care for his own.
Bloom recommends that we temper our enthusiasm for empathy with an appreciation for the role that reason plays in moral decision-making and moral action.
In his words:
If a planet of billions is to survive, however, we’ll need to take into consideration the welfare of people not yet harmed—and, even more, of people not yet born. They have no names, faces, or stories to grip our conscience or stir our fellow-feeling. Their prospects call, rather, for deliberation and calculation. Our hearts will always go out to the baby in the well; it’s a measure of our humanity. But empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.
Reason does not merely tell us that we ought to do something to alleviate human suffering. It guides us to develop a plan of action that will solve the problem and will not just make us feel better.
Excessive empathy does not help you to figure out the right thing to do. If you feel more empathy, you will be more likely to perform a spontaneous gesture that shows how much you care and less likely to think about what might work.
Those who believe that empathy will solve all problems base their argument on the fact that psychopaths feel no empathy. They should add, as Bloom does not, that great competitors rarely feel empathy for their opponents.
In a world where people compete in the arena or the marketplace empathy is a handicap.
Besides, if a friend feels badly about his inability to deal with a situation, your empathy will not really help him. If you need to be clear-headed to help him find a solution, feeling the way he feels when he can’t find one does not help.
In that circumstance, “I feel your pain” means: I have no idea about how to deal with it, either.
Famed empathy researcher Simon Baron-Cohen has noted the following:
Putting aside the extremes of psychopathy, there is no evidence to suggest that the less empathetic are morally worse than the rest of us. Simon Baron-Cohen observes that some people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, though typically empathy-deficient, are highly moral, owing to a strong desire to follow rules and insure that they are applied fairly.
One suspects that people who do the right thing gain satisfaction by knowing what the rules are and by following them correctly.