More Than A Feeling

Claude S. Fischer points to the limits of empathy when it comes to helping others:

Relying on empathy to motivate charity means that it is not enough that the needy are humans, but they must also be lucky, like the children who happened to live near a Google mogul and got needed dental treatment as a Christmas present; children living further away did not. The needy must also not be repulsive, but preferably be adorable. That is why relief organizations try to show individual, attractive victims who are suffering but not suffering so much as to turn viewers away (see this earlier post on “ugly” laws to bar the poor from city streets). The latest development to mobilize empathy for altruism is “a crowdfunding website for homeless people, where the needy can post photos, videos, tell their story, and request donations for the things that might help them take the next step.” So, the homeless who can best display their empathy-worthiness get personal help from the homelessness-kickstarter audience.

The Abrahamic tradition has a different approach to altruism. The New and Old Testaments largely command people who are comfortable to give to people who aren’t—unconditionally (discussed here). Feeling empathetic has nothing to do with it. Nor does the recipients’ deservingness. (Even the president’s spokesman goofed in attributing the Greek saying about helping “those who help themselves” to the Bible.) In this tradition, God wills, commands that we help those who need help, with no qualification tests. On a comparable subject, rendering justice in disputes, the Bible enjoins that “You shall not favor the wretched and you shall not defer to the rich” (Lev. 19:15; Alter trans.)—that is, a judge should not let empathy guide justice in either direction.