The Power of Empathy

Many of our Ethics Unwrapped videos carry messages arising from the field of Behavioral Ethics.  That same area of research has demonstrated the important role emotions play in constructing our moral beliefs and shaping our moral actions.  We tend to feel guilt when we violate moral rules and shame when others find out we have done so.  These two emotions help us stay on the straight and narrow.  Other people tend to feel anger or disgust when we violate moral rules, which reinforce our general desire to act morally.

But many believe that empathy is the central moral emotion.  Acting morally is in many settings the act of subordinating our own immediate interests to the interests of others.  Empathy appears to be the key human emotion that underlies altruism.

I believe that guilt is a fairly reliable indicator that an act we are contemplating may be a bad idea.  When we feel that familiar uneasy feeling in the pit of our stomach, we should pay attention to it.  That does not mean that we should always refrain from taking the contemplated action, but we should carefully examine whether to do so is a good idea.  And we should probably consult with third parties for their advice wherever possible, for when we try to use logic to override feelings of guilt, we may just be rationalizing toward a desired end.

But empathy may not be as reliable a guide as guilt for human conduct.  In a thought-provoking article in The New Yorker, Paul Bloom recently makes a case “against empathy.”  Bloom discusses the psychological and cognitive science literature supporting the view that empathy underlies much “other regarding” behavior that is critical to human altruism.  But he also is familiar with research indicating that our empathetic reactions often lead to less than optimal actions and irrational policy.

Many, including President Obama, have championed an increase in empathy as a way to make the world a better place.  Bloom calls this enthusiasm “misplaced,” arguing that empathy is “parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate.”  These first two of these criticisms are duplicative and arguably misguided themselves.  The characterization is accurate in that we tend to find it easy to be empathetic to the plight of members of our in-group, but difficult to muster that same emotional response toward out-group members.  But those, including Obama, who call for more empathy are looking for ways to expand how we define our in-group so that we can naturally view more and more people as members of our in-group.  Once upon a time, it is likely that we viewed blood relatives as pretty much the only members of our in-group.  Today, context matters, but it is not unusual for us to consider as in-group members for particular purposes all citizens of our community or state or nation, all alums of our university, all fellow fans of our favorite football team, and the like.  There are ways to expand how we define our in-group and these should be encouraged, though Bloom is correct we will not consider all living beings on the planet as part of our in-group for all purposes any time soon.

But Bloom is spot on in arguing that empathy is innumerate and can therefore cause misallocation of concern and resources.  Most readers are probably familiar with the “identifiable victim effect.”  If one little girl, preferably blond, falls into a well, Americans’ experience plentiful empathy and are willing to spend nearly unlimited resources to free her.  But chronic malnutrition, ambient pollution, inadequate medical insurance, potentially catastrophic climate change, and a raft of conditions that kill (or will kill) literally thousands of young children a year do not trigger our empathy because the victims, while quite real, cannot be readily identified.  There is often no name and no picture to put on a milk carton.

Ultimately, we should pay attention to Bloom’s concluding paragraph:

“The power of [empathy] has something to do with its ability to bring our moral concern into a laser pointer of focused attention.  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.”

 

For more information on this topic, please consult:

 

Paul Bloom, The Baby in the Well, THE NEW YORKER, May 20, 2013, p. 118.

PAUL R. EHRLICH & ROBERT E. ORNSTEIN, HUMANITY OF A TIGHTROPE (2012).

JEREMY RIFKIN, THE EMPATHIC CIVILIZATION (2009).

Paul J. Zak, The Physiology of Moral Sentiments, 77 JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC BEHAVIORAL AND ORGANIZATION 53 (2011).

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