Since childhood, we are taught that empathy is a virtue. Empathy is defined as a person’s ability to relate to and sympathize with another person’s situation — to put yourself in their shoes and view things from their perspective. Often confused with sympathy, empathy goes beyond the act of feeling sorry for another person. It quite literally involves feeling their joy, or more often, their pain. Former US President Barack Obama frequently talks about the need for more empathy in the world. “… Let us join together across denominations, religions and cultures to make a habit of empathy and reach out to those most in need”, he has been quoted as saying.
Far from being the selfless act it is often touted as, however, empathy can actually be downright harmful, some feel. Chief among its detractors is Paul Bloom, a Yale professor who authored a book on the subject – “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion”. While this might seem like a ridiculous statement at first glance, the arguments against empathy actually have extremely logical foundations. Professor Bloom argues that empathy makes our compassion exclusive to those whom we empathize with; in effect, it excludes all others from the benefits of our philanthropy and kindness, even if those others require it more than those whom we empathize with do.
Similarly, many feel that all empathy does is feed into and fuel pre-existing biases and prejudices in society. While one might argue that feelings of empathy are often the reason behind charitable acts, the fact remains that that charity is directed only towards those who look and think like us. Simply put, empathy doesn’t make us view the world from everyone’s perspective, but only makes us empathize with those who already share our perspective. Since empathy is generally spoken of in the context of helping out those in need, what this means is that we’re more likely to help out (financially or otherwise) a person who resembles us rather than someone who might actually need that help far more (and for whom the marginal benefit of that aid might be much higher).
Critics argue that in essence, what empathy does is give your compassion a direction – a direction which is dictated by emotion rather than logic. It is here where Professor Bloom presents his arguments in favor of what he calls rational compassion (the act of being compassionate towards those who need it more rather than towards those whom you empathize with more). If this is to be believed, Mr. Obama’s goal of reaching out to those most in need, and his attempts at reducing the gap between people of different denominations, religions and cultures may actually backfire.
The description of empathy as discussed above is one which is subject to misuse, and often is, especially in the realm of politics. Donald Trump could be considered a veritable master at the art of invoking empathic bias amongst members of his audience, which was undoubtedly one of the reasons for his shocking win. In a similar fashion, many point to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for using similar emotion-inducing tactics while delivering speeches to large crowds.
The counter argument which may be presented in defense of empathy is that without it, the charitable act would never have occurred in the first place. Empathy therefore does not give compassion direction, but it serves as a prerequisite for it. While it may be easy to say that empathy is kindness of an exclusive nature, the fact is that the very act of empathizing is what spurred the altruistic act. Rational compassion only works for those who have their mind already set on doing something altruistic from beforehand. At the very least, it can be argued that empathy helps someone, which is better than no one.
The debate boils down to individual preferences and perceptions, and just how far we as human beings are willing to let emphatic biases affect us and our decisions. Utilitarianism dictates that we should help the largest number, but empathy often leads us towards helping the few whom we relate to. Ultimately, empathy may not be quite so undesirable if everyone is helped out by someone who empathizes with them. Whether this empathy comes at the cost of the harmonious coexistence of societal elements, however, is another question. If everyone only looks out for their own kind, will all these different kinds of people still get along?
-Contributed by Prithviraj
Picture Credits: chulawired.com