While recent discussions of police brutality have brought attention to the so-called racial empathy gap, other research suggests that empathy can create as much harm as good. First, racial empathy gap:
For many people, race does matter, even if they don’t know it. They feel more empathy when they see white skin pierced than black. This is known as the racial empathy gap. To study it, researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca showed participants (all of whom were white) video clips of a needle or an eraser touching someone’s skin. They measured participants’ reactions through skin conductance tests—basically whether their hands got sweaty—which reflect activity in the pain matrix of the brain. If we see someone in pain, it triggers the same network in our brains that’s activated when we are hurt. But people do not respond to the pain of others equally. In this experiment, when viewers saw white people receiving a painful stimulus, they responded more dramatically than they did for black people.
The racial empathy gap helps explain disparities in everything from pain management to the criminal justice system. But the problem isn’t just that people disregard the pain of black people. It’s somehow even worse. The problem is that the pain isn’t even felt.
On the other hand:
Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive sciences at Yale, has written a thoughtful criticism of the widespread assumption that we can improve the world by increasing our empathy. In his farewell address, for example, President Barack Obama said that empathy for those who are different is an essential pillar of democracy. Political polarization could be reduced if Republicans and Democrats had more empathy for one another. Teachers, psychologists, and politicians suggest that lack of empathy lies behind complacency toward Native Americans, judgmentalism toward opioid addicts, and hostility toward immigrants. If we felt the pain of the afflicted, it is often assumed, we would want to take proactive steps to help them.
Bloom doubts it. He rejects the assumption that empathy is either a strong motivator of moral goodness or a proper guide to moral decision making. One can identify emotionally with the suffering of others but not do anything about it; conversely, one can offer effective assistance to another person without echoing his or her internal states.
Bloom goes even further in arguing that empathy is actually responsible for more harm than good. A wide array of studies in social psychology and neuroscience show that empathy is highly context sensitive, shortsighted, mood dependent, narrowly focused, biased, and parochial.
Turns out that moral reflection (not moral outrage) may be better than empathy:
The good Samaritan was moved by the victim’s sorry state, but there is no reason to think he felt anything like what the victim would have felt lying on the side of the road. What was important was the Samaritan’s good will and good judgment about how to help the poor man. More generally, the point is that we do not have to feel any particular way in order to do what is right in any given situation. What is essential, as Thomas Aquinas put it, is a “constant and firm will to give each his or her due.”
Once again, the value of emotions, experience, and authenticity may be way less important than pietists (among others) think.