Longtime readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of empathy. (I wrote a more extensive critique in my book The Last Psychoanalyst.) When the psycho world and the therapy culture gloms on to a concept you can be reasonably assured that something is wrong with it.
Therapists and other culture warriors have touted empathy as the ultimate moral virtue. Here is their reasoning: since psychopaths do not feel empathy, the more empathy you feel the less likely you are to be a psychopath. Thus, more empathy means less crime and a kinder, gentler world. But, also a more feminine world.
Better yet, if we feel more empathy we will happily want to intervene around the world, wherever we see human suffering. Wasn’t it empathy that caused Angela Merkel to open Germany’s doors to a million refugees?
One suspects that political thinkers are promoting empathy because they want to use it to facilitate the passage of a liberal legislative agenda. Who could fail to feel the pain of those suffering for lack of health insurance? Any empathetic human being would therefore favor Obamacare. Right?
On the side of the theoretical spectrum, Prof. Paul Bloom has suggested that empathy can also make us into sadists. When we see someone suffering and feel his pain we are likely to want to take vengeance on whoever it was that caused the pain. I called such people sadistic empaths and have posted about them.
Now, John Tierney asks whether we should value a president’s capacity for empathy. After all, Bill Clinton was notable for his ability to feel the pain of others. Of course, he was not very good at feeling the pain of Juanita Broaddrick or Kathleen Willey or Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky. Still and all, everyone admired Clinton’s capacity for empathy. Apparently, women found it seductive.
Tierney offers a balanced view of the debate over empathy. After explaining its value, he gives us the counterargument:
Empathy may not be such a great quality in a leader. Although the capacity to sympathize with others’ suffering is widely hailed as an essential virtue — Mr. Obama has said the world is suffering from an “empathy deficit” — there’s a downside that has inspired a lively debate among social psychologists.
When you let your feelings be your guide, you do not always make the best decisions. Tierney quotes Paul Bloom on the trouble with empathy:
But whom do you end up helping? Often the wrong people, Dr. Bloom says, because empathy is biased and parochial. It favors vulnerable children and animals, and discriminates against unattractive people. You’re more likely to sympathize with someone in your social group rather than an outsider, especially one who looks different.
Empathy is also innumerate, Dr. Bloom notes, which is why you may care more about one girl stuck in a well than thousands of war refugees or millions of people who will be affected by climate change.
And he adds that Bloom rejects the idea that we should seek out leaders who have a great capacity for empathy:
Dr. Bloom concludes that empathy is overrated as a guide for personal morality or public leadership. “Sob stories are not a good way to make public policy,” he said. “The best leaders have a certain enlightened aloofness.”
“They recognize the suffering of victims of terrorists, but they also recognize that going to war will create future victims. They make policy by taking into account numbers and cost-benefit analyses. They use rational means to achieve good ends.”
And, of course, empathy is ultimately selfish. It causes us to regulate our behavior as a function of our own feelings. It disables rational thought and blinds us to reality. Moreover, as we saw yesterday in the experience of John Elder Robison, it's possible to feel too strongly and too much. If you feel the pain of all of those who are in pain you end up feeling constant pain.
Tierney quotes Bloom who quotes Adam Smith. The great philosopher declared that empathy or “fellow feeling” was a poor guide for action. In place of empathy Smith proposed that we rely more on reason and principle.
Dr. Bloom, the empathy critic, agrees that this emotion can be goosed to some degree, but he says we are still better off relying on the less emotional strategy described in 1759 by Adam Smith in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Smith noted that “fellow-feeling,” his term for empathy, was a powerful yet limited emotion: An Englishman, he suggested, would lose more sleep worrying about the loss of a finger than about the deaths of 100 million foreigners in an earthquake.
How, Smith asked, could this selfish impulse be overridden?
“It is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love,” Smith wrote. “It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions.
“It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.”