Bleeding heart flowers

Paul Bloom gives important and eloquent voice to the critics of “empathy” in his recent piece in the New Yorker. I read it with great interest, respect, and gratitude to him for shining a light on how the idea of empathy can be misperceived and misused, especially politically.

Much of the confusion lies in various interpretations of what “empathy” is and is not.
What it is:
Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another person. One may need to have a certain amount of empathy before being able to experience accurate sympathy or compassion. – Wikipedia

I agree with Bloom: “it is impossible to empathize with seven billion strangers, or to feel toward someone you’ve never met the degree of concern you feel for a child, a friend, or a lover. Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”

Empathy development is a contact sport.

It must be done one relationship at a time, through practicing empathetic communication aimed at understanding others whether they are similar to us (“in group empathy”) or very different (“out group empathy). It’s the only way to build the capacity for empathy, and it starts at home. You cannot think your way into engaging in truly empathetic (vs simply emotional) interactions anymore than you can think yourself into washboard abs. Furthermore, our ability to value human lives that are far away starts with the template we have close to home.

Not all emotional responses are genuine empathy.

I agree with Bloom that purely emotional responses can mislead us, or as is often the case, are evoked to intentionally manipulate us. One of the key issues is “the identifiable victim effect”. He notes: “As the economist Thomas Schelling, writing forty-five years ago, mordantly observed, ‘Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.’”

He discusses similar “identifiable victim effects” in cases which have captivated the US media and our people, e.g., Baby Jessica in the well, Natalee Holloway, the victims of Sandy Hook. He also writes about President Obama’s call for more “empathy” toward victims of hardship – “the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town”.

These personal stories stir our emotions, but the “identifiable victim effect” is more projection and fantasy than true empathy. We cannot presume to really understand and feel for someone we do not know, even when they look like us or our kids. We do not have any real mutuality with them. What we have is our personal judgment about how we might feel in what we perceive to be their situation. The “identifiable victim effect” is no more real empathy than celebrity hero worship.

However, when Bloom says “disciplining a child for dangerous behavior” requires “us to put our empathy to one side“, I disagree wholeheartedly. Keeping a child safe is not putting empathy aside but rather activating it at the most fundamental level. Empathetic parents understand their kids and provide what they need, discipline included.

Furthermore, empathy does not always mean shared pain nor should it always end in “helping” a “victim”. This is the bleeding heart caricature which gives empathy a bad name. Empathetic leaders understand their employees, enough to realize when tough coaching, cheerleading, or delegation is appropriate. That doesn’t mean they take chicken soup to your sick aunt.

Empathy doesn’t give us the answers; it gives us the capacity to work together toward better answers.

I agree with Bloom about the implausibility of Rifkin’s assertion that “moral progress involves expanding our concern from the family and the tribe to humanity as a whole“. Not only is it impossible to empathize with seven billion strangers, it’s not even necessary or productive. What we need is for all seven billion people to live in a culture which nurtures their individual capacity for empathy, with family members, coworkers, and others in the world with whom they come into contact. Healthy empathy is fundamental to productive collaborations, and it must be practiced to become a habit.

Only by working together toward better answers – using data, logic, and the creativity and innovation which comes from inclusion of diverse views – will we move toward an abundant world (vs a rising population with scarce resources, crushing financial deficits, and industries in need of transformation with organizations which are too big to fail yet stagnant).

Should we marry logic and rational economics with genuine empathy in order to design a better future, including the most effective policies? Absolutely. So, I am disappointed with Paul Bloom’s conclusion: “empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future”

We’ve been there and done that. It’s not working. Yes, emotional responses can be misleading, but logic and data are also human constructs. They are subject to human biases and educated incapacity (Edie Weiner’s great phrase), and are fully dependent on the questions we ask in the first place. Humanity will have an abundant future when we balance reason and genuine empathy to ask the right questions, design insightful research and policies, and work for something bigger in true understanding and collaboration with each other. We are built for that, and it requires a capacity for empathy. To do otherwise is to deny humanity and forego wisdom.

Picture of bleeding heart flowers from
Thanks to Eva Basilion for her thoughtful questions and contributions to this post
Thanks to Jennifer Lehner for sharing Paul Bloom’s article.

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An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder


An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

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