Empathy, understanding the emotions and needs of people unlike ourselves, should be a primary motivating force in how we act, both as individuals and as a society. (More)

Empathy compassion

As explained recently, one of the primary reasons that I am a progressive is that I believe that there are numerous important individual and societal goals that individuals cannot reasonably achieve on their own and/or that the free market will not provide. A second factor that motivates my progressivism is a belief that empathy – the ability and willingness to identify and understand the emotions and needs of people unlike ourselves – should be a primary motivating force in how we act both as individuals and as a society.

Such empathy serves as a key basis for a wide array of policies that I strongly support even though I do not directly benefit from them. For example, I am financially lucky and, therefore, do not directly benefit from programs such as food stamps or Medicaid. But I can empathize with the struggles that people who are less financially well off than I am face in trying to get by and, therefore, am supportive of policies that help reduce their economic struggles. Similarly, because of empathy, I can understand why people who spend long hours doing the type of manual labor that I have never had to do would feel it important to be paid fairly and to be able to unionize and, therefore, I am strongly supportive of labor rights even though I do not directly benefit from them. And while I am both heterosexual and uninterested in serving in the military, I strongly supported repealing DADT because I can empathize with the pain and unfairness that gay and lesbian people who did want to serve in the military felt when they were forced to hide their true identities in order to serve.

There are certainly other important reasons why I support progressive policies. But a willingness to see the world through the eyes of others who are in far different places in life than I am is a common thread that motivates me to act in support of the concepts of fundamental fairness and justice that are the hallmarks of progressivism. And I am far from alone in having empathy motivate my progressivism, as studies have shown that empathy is a key motivator for liberal political engagement – but not for conservative political engagement – and is persuasively argued to provide the critical moral underpinning for the progressive agenda.

Given the importance of empathy to my political worldview, I was surprised to read in a recent New Yorker magazine an essay by Paul Bloom presenting a “case against empathy” as providing a faulty basis for motivating progressive policy outcomes. According to Mr. Bloom:

Empathy has some unfortunate features – it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.

This critique appears to be based on two fundamental concerns with empathy. First, Mr. Bloom contends that empathy does not provide a good guide to policy for progressives because both sides can urge empathy for the individuals who are benefited or harmed by a proposed policy as a reason to support or defeat such policy. Second, empathy is typically triggered by the “identifiable victim effect,” which gets us focused on a small number of people who were impacted by a particular circumstance like a natural disaster or a murder, rather than on the fact that vast numbers of people throughout the world are suffering far worse fates with little to no attention paid by the rest of us.

While Mr. Bloom makes some valid points, his argument fails as a critique of empathy as a motivating force for one’s political philosophy and policy advocacy. The core problem in Mr. Bloom’s argument is shown by the examples he provides of empathy purportedly leading people astray. For example, Mr. Bloom discusses how a focus on high-profile crimes, such as a child abduction or Willie Horton murdering a woman after being furloughed, often lead to counter-productive response of harsher punishments and reduced civil liberties. But it is a stretch to say that such responses are a result of people empathizing with the victims of such crimes. Instead, the popular response to crime that leads to such policies is typically based on peoples’ fears that they (or their close family) could also be a victim of a horrendous crime. In other words, instead of empathy, such reactions are motivated by an understandable but frequently misguided concern for oneself, not for others.

Similarly, Mr. Bloom sees empathy at work in the fact that climate change regulation and workplace safety rules are fought on the grounds that businesses could be hurt and jobs lost from such rules and regulations. But, again, it is hard to see how this is an empathetic response, rather than a self-interested one. In particular, most people concerned about the economy and job losses are motivated by a concern that a bad economy or particular layoffs are likely to impact them directly.

As for the identifiable victim effect, Mr. Bloom argues that focusing on one or a few high profile cases, such as a baby falling into a well or a mass shooting, causes us to ignore the far larger and more systematic problems that are faced by other less identifiable victims. In a follow-up article, Mr. Bloom makes a similar point regarding the apparent sympathy that some people are feeling for the accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev because they perceive him to be an attractive-looking young man who is more like one of their own children than like a hardened criminal. Mr. Bloom portrays these examples as further evidence of the “parochial and irrational nature of empathy.” These identifiable victim examples reveal that the problem is not with empathy itself, but rather with people’s limited approach to empathy. In particular, most of the cases that become high profile involve individuals or groups of people who are like what the majority favors and considers familiar – typically, white, middle to upper middle class, and attractive. But the entire point of empathy is to focus on lives that are unlike your own or those of your close family and friends.

Finally, Mr. Bloom’s critique of empathy appears to boil down to the argument that empathy should not be one’s sole motivating action but, instead, it should be tempered with common sense logic, rationality, and reasonableness. But no one should seriously contend otherwise, as it rarely makes sense to rely on only a single emotional response as the basis for our actions. Instead, we should be combining and balancing our empathy with other responses in order to end up with a more logical, reasonable, and caring political philosophy.

In summary, Mr. Bloom’s arguments appear to miss the boat in terms of providing actual bases for rejecting empathy in the political realm. Instead, what is needed is for people to expand their conceptions of empathy to people who are less like them, and to explore how to better integrate empathy with reason, rationality, and strategic thinking regarding how to achieve progressive goals. In other words, Mr. Bloom has not provided the “case against empathy” but, instead, has highlighted places where empathy needs to be strengthened so that we can have a politics that is more progressive and more focused on the real issues facing our culture and society.