The Empathy Trap
Our emotions often motivate us to do what is right, but they are equally likely to motivate us to do what is wrong. In making ethical decisions, it is our ability to reason – not our ability to feel the pain of others – that should play a crucial role.
PRINCETON – Soon after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, he told a young girl: “We don’t have enough empathy in our world today, and it is up to your generation to change that.” Obama expressed a widespread view, so the title of a new book, Against Empathy, by Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom, comes as a shock. How can anyone be against something that enables us to put ourselves in others’ shoes and feel what they feel?
To answer that question, we might ask another: For whom should we have empathy? As Donald Trump prepares to succeed Obama, analysts are suggesting that Hillary Clinton lost last month’s election because she lacked empathy with white Americans, particularly Rust Belt voters yearning for the days when the US was a manufacturing powerhouse. The problem is that empathy for American workers is in tension with empathy for workers in Mexico and China, who would be even worse off without jobs than their American counterparts are.
Empathy makes us kinder to people with whom we empathize. That’s good, but it also has a darker side. Trump, in his campaign speeches, made use of the tragic murder of Kate Steinle by an undocumented immigrant to stoke support for his anti-immigrant policies. He did not, of course, offer any similarly vivid portrayals of undocumented immigrants who have saved the lives of strangers, although such cases have been reported.
We hope you're enjoying Project Syndicate.
To continue reading, subscribe now.
Get unlimited access to PS premium content, including in-depth commentaries, book reviews, exclusive interviews, On Point, the Big Picture, the PS Archive, and our annual year-ahead magazine.
Already have an account or want to create one? Log in