Skip to main content

Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated Cookie policy, Privacy policy and Terms & Conditions

Immigrant protest at trump tower Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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.

Subscribe

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.

https://prosyn.org/IpQIgQy;
  1. mahroum18_HAIDAR HAMDANIAFP via Getty Images_iraqprotestfire Haidar Hamdani/AFP via Getty Images

    The Arab World Needs a Brexit Debate

    Sami Mahroum

    The Arab world has witnessed at least one big Brexit-like event every decade since 1948 – and these political, economic, and social ruptures never seem to heal. The impact of these self-inflicted disasters is now painfully evident, and ongoing street protests in several countries suggest that a moment of reckoning may have arrived.

    0
  2. lhatheway7_Claudio Santistebanpicture alliance via Getty Images_ECBFedLagardePowell Claudio Santisteban/picture alliance via Getty Images

    Restoring Central Banks’ Credibility

    Larry Hatheway

    The old central-bank playbook of slashing interest rates to spur consumption, investment, and employment has become less effective since the 2008 financial crisis. Yet without effective tools and the public's confidence, central banks will be unable to rise to the occasion when the next recession arrives.

    0
  3. fischer163_action press-PoolGetty Images_natoflagsoldiers Action Press-Pool/Getty Images

    The Day After NATO

    Joschka Fischer

    French President Emmanuel Macron has drawn criticism for describing NATO as brain dead and pursuing a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But now that a wayward America could abandon the continent at any moment, Macron's argument for European defense autonomy is difficult to refute.

    9