The Limits Of Empathy

Andrew Sullivan —  May 19 2013 @ 2:35pm

Paul Bloom identifies them:

[Jeremy] Rifkin and others have argued, plausibly, that moral progress involves expanding our concern from the family and the tribe to humanity as a whole. Yet 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.

That’s not a call for a world without empathy. A race of psychopaths might well be smart enough to invent the principles of solidarity and fairness. (Research suggests that criminal psychopaths are adept at making moral judgments.) The problem with those who are devoid of empathy is that, although they may recognize what’s right, they have no motivation to act upon it. Some spark of fellow-feeling is needed to convert intelligence into action.

But a spark may be all that’s needed. Putting aside the extremes of psychopathy, there is no evidence to suggest that the less empathetic are morally worse than the rest of us. Simon Baron-Cohen observes that some people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, though typically empathy-deficient, are highly moral, owing to a strong desire to follow rules and insure that they are applied fairly.

Norm Geras’s perspective:

I think Bloom’s point must be taken. But what, really, is this point? That empathy isn’t self-sufficient? It certainly isn’t. To operate effectively it needs the assistance of reason and the weighing of empirical evidence. I agree with him too – as I’ve argued on my own account in a recent paper – that ‘it is impossible to empathize with seven billion strangers’. At the same time, how damning is it of empathy to point out that it is not all we require? Reason is also not all we require, but it is no less precious for all that. Empathy, in conjunction with other human faculties, is an invaluable way towards solidarity with others and humane action.