Empathy Can Lead to Short-Sighted and Unfair Moral Bias

Paul_bloom-thumbstandardWhat does it take to be a good person? What makes someone a good doctor, therapist or parent? What guides policy-makers to make wise and moral decisions?

Many believe that empathy — the capacity to experience the feelings of others, and particularly others’ suffering — is essential to all of these roles. I argue that this is a mistake, often a tragic one.

Empathy acts like a spotlight, focusing one’s attention on a single individual in the here and now. This can have positive effects, but it can also lead to short-sighted and unfair moral actions. And it is subject to bias — both laboratory studies and anecdotal experiences show that empathy flows most for those who look like us, who are attractive and who are non-threatening and familiar.

Empathy has its place but reason should guide action, as it aspires toward the sort of fairness and impartiality empathy doesn’t provide.

When we appreciate that skin color does not determine who we should care about, for example, or that a crisis such as climate change has great significance — even though it is an abstract threat — we are transcending empathy. A good policy maker makes decisions using reason, aspiring toward the sort of fairness and impartiality empathy doesn’t provide.

Empathy isn’t just a reflex, of course. We can choose to empathize and stir empathy for others. But this flexibility can be a curse. Our empathy can be exploited by others, as when cynical politicians tell stories of victims of rape or assault and use our empathy for these victims to stoke hatred against vulnerable groups, such as undocumented immigrants.

For those in the helping professions, compassion and understanding are critically important. But not empathy — feeling the suffering of others too acutely leads to exhaustion, burnout and ineffective work. No good therapist is awash with anxiety when working with an anxious patient. Some distance is required. The essayist Leslie Jamison has a great description of this, in writing about a good doctor who helped her: “His calmness didn’t make me feel 
abandoned, it made me feel secure,” she wrote. “I wanted to look at him 
and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo.”

Or consider a parent dealing with a teenager who is panicked because she left her homework to the last minute. It’s hardly good parenting to panic along with her. Good parents care for their children and understand them, but don’t necessarily absorb their suffering.

Rationality alone isn’t enough to be a good person; you also need some sort of motivation. But compassion — caring for others without feeling their pain — does the trick quite nicely. Empathy and compassion are distinct: Recent neuroscience studies, including some fascinating work on the power of meditation, show that compassion is distinct from empathy, with all its benefits and few of its costs.

Many of life’s deepest pleasures, such as engagement with novels, movies and television, require empathic connection. Empathy has its place. But when it comes to being a good person, there are better alternatives.

Moral Wisdom Requires Empathy

Jamil_zaki-thumbstandardPaul, you aptly point out the perils of relying on empathy. But you also overstate its problems and undersell its importance.

For one thing, you are sparring against a straw version of “empathy.” Encountering an upset friend, one might vicariously share his feelings, understand where those feelings come from and wish for him to feel better. All of these experiences are pieces of empathy, but you have thinned out the definition to only include its emotion-sharing component. This is like arguing that European food isn’t delicious, but first defining “European food” strictly as haggis.

You also describe emotions as volatile and irrational. This perspective is dated, harkening back to the Greek notion that people must subdue their passions through reason, like a rider on a wild horse. But in fact people work with, not against, their feelings, turning them up or down to suit their needs. Empathy is no different. Yes, it’s an emotional spotlight, but people have the ability to point this spotlight as they see fit. My own research demonstrates that when people simply believe empathy is under their control, they are inspired to try harder at it — for example, in paying attention to the emotions of people who differ from them ethically or politically.

Enshrining pure logic to guide morality is naïve. Even when people try to be objective, they often confirm what they want to believe.

Why bother working with empathy if we can better ourselves through principle alone, as you argue? Because empathy makes a difference — not always, but more than you suggest. It helps to receive empathy. For example, cancer patients experience less depression and more empowerment when their physicians express empathy. It also helps to give it: People who behave kindly grow happier and healthier, most of all when they act out of empathy.

Those who choose empathy grow a broader, richer emotional life.

And it helps to be around it, because empathy, even toward one person, can jumpstart human care for larger groups. Many Americans opposed slavery before 1852, but “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in shedding light on its horrors, moved millions and sparked a new momentum for abolitionism. In cases like this, empathy enlivens moral principles, making them urgent.

Of course, Paul, you’re right that people do dole out empathy lazily — to others who look or think like them — or cynically, to spark aggression. But enshrining pure logic to guide morality is naïve. Even when people try to be objective, they often confirm what they want to believe. In our post-truth world, people can use reason like a shield, curling up in comfortable assumptions, surrounding themselves with others who amplify their biases. If people don’t want to broaden their empathy, they’ll probably use reason narrowly as well.

No piece of human psychology is always good or bad, and arguing for or against empathy makes no more sense than arguing for memory or against attention. Instead, we should motivate people to align empathy with their sense of what is right.

Moral wisdom requires bringing together the force of emotion and the precision of principle, not splitting them apart.

There Is a Difference Between Empathy and Compassion

Paul_bloom-thumbstandardJamil, I worry about your lumping together some very different psychological processes — such as feeling, understanding and motivation — when you talk about “empathy.” For one thing, it means we’re talking past each other. To use your analogy, it’s as if I wrote a book “Against Haggis” and you responded by citing papers showing how Scottish salmon is good for the heart.

My usage of the terms is pretty typical; there are many scientists and philosophers and laypeople who define “empathy” and “compassion” exactly the same way I do. More important, there are many who believe the empathy — in the sense of feeling others’ feelings — really is central to being a good person.

I believe there is a marked difference between empathy and compassion. And when you lump them together, you leave less room for the richness of moral psychology and make it harder to properly explain the phenomena you discuss.

When you lump them together, you leave less room for the richness of moral psychology and make it harder to properly explain the phenomena behind being a good person.

Exactly what was it about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that had such a positive social effect? Precisely what is it that doctors are doing that is making their patients less depressed? When you say humans do better when we “harness empathy,” are you talking about feeling, understanding, motivation — or some specific combination of all three?

I do agree with you that emotions have mixed effects. Lust can be terrific, but certainly not for doctors doing medical exams. Similarly, empathy can be wonderful — empathic engagement is central to the enjoyment of fiction, for instance — but it has serious design flaws, such as bias and narrowness, that render it a poor guide to being a good person. To the extent that we need an emotional push, we’re better off with compassion.

Finally, you note that humans can do poorly when it comes to reasoned deliberation. I agree — but the solution is not to listen to our hearts, to fall sway to our biases and prejudices. Rather it is to reason better, often with the help of other people, to explore arguments and counter-arguments, considering various examples and so on.

After all, isn’t this what we are doing right now?

Emotion and Reason Are Inextricably Intertwined

Jamil_zaki-thumbstandardYou accuse me of lumping, and I plead guilty. But in this case lumping is realistic, because empathy does mean more than one thing: It includes sharing, thinking about, and caring for others’ inner lives.

Scientists can differentiate between these “pieces” of empathy, for instance, because they activate different systems in the brain. But just because two things can be separated doesn’t mean they are always or even usually neatly divided. To continue our food fight: People can tell the difference between chickpeas and olive oil, but real world empathy is more like hummus — blended, often for the better.

For instance, brain systems that are involved in both sharing and thinking about emotions allow people to insightfully understand what others feel. And in psychological research, the most tried and true way to ramp one’s “compassion” is through “cognitive empathy,” i.e. by asking people to consider others’ point of view.

Compassion has strengths, and emotional empathy has weaknesses, but splitting these emotions is too simplistic.

Which piece of empathy, then, provides the best push toward goodness? It depends. Someone who has just seen a police shooting video doesn’t need another emotional punch in the gut, but could leverage his feelings to better understand the perspective of communities of color. Someone who reads devastating statistics about Yemeni refugees might also watch evocative videos of their plight, hijacking her emotional empathy to inspire action.

I agree that compassion has strengths, and emotional empathy has weaknesses. But neither is a poor guide to being a good person, and neither is a moral cure-all. This might seem lumpy to you, Paul, but splitting these emotions is too simplistic.

Emotion and reason are also intertwined. People constantly think themselves into and out of feelings. Strong emotions can act like a psychological alarm system, drawing our consciousness toward whatever causes them. In the best cases, emotions help us reason better, by forcing us to consider new points of view.

Emotion is woven into the fabric of our minds and that’s a good thing. Although feelings alone don’t make us good people, they are key ingredients in our moral lives.


Writing Assignment:

Day 1. Write a constructed response that answers the question, introduces the topic, and cites and explains.

Who makes the stronger argument?

Day 2 Thursday May 11 . Write an introductory paragraph.


Compose an introductory paragraph that takes a position on the following topic:

Agree or disagree–Empathy is overrated.

Your introduction must

  • introduces the topic
  • addresses a counterclaim
  • and contains a thesis