Empathy Matters (but maybe not the way you think)

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.

7 thoughts on “Empathy Matters (but maybe not the way you think)

  1. This sounds kind of like the Voight-Kampff test to see if certain suspects were real people or replicants. Might be time to enlist a squad of bladrunners to do away with some of them…


  2. Why speak of empathy and moral reflection as being mutually exclusive. Who is to say that the Good Samaritan in the parable didn’t help, at least in part, out of empathy. Isn’t empathy involved when Jesus tells us why we should forgive the sins of others in the parable of the man who was forgiven much but could not forgive who owed him a little? Isn’t empathy involved when Paul tells masters about how to treat their own slaves? And what about the Golden Rule?

    That empathy is not sufficient in guiding us on how to treat others is not the point. That empathy is necessary is. For doesn’t moral reflection with out empathy lead to self-righteousness? And what does Paul say about those actions that are not guided by love?


  3. dgh says Once again, the value of emotions, experience, and authenticity may be way less important than pietists (among others) think.

    doesn’t really matter what “pietists (among others) think, just what Jesus thinks …i.e. Empathy Matters

    therefore, too, as to the “ thoughtful criticism of the widespread assumption that we can improve the world by increasing our empathy.” And “Bloom doubting it.” And Bloom going “even further in arguing that empathy is actually responsible for more harm than good.” …He should read the bible

    em·pa·thy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

    -we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses Heb 4:15
    -believers:predestined to become conformed to the image of Jesus Rom 8:29
    -beholding the Lord’s glory, we are being transformed into the same image 2 Cor 3:18

    Jesus: Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body. (Heb 13:3)
    in the body: if one member suffers, all members suffer with it [1 Cor 12:26] ;
    outside the body: Jesus came to set prisoners free -we know what prison-hood feels like (Eph 2:3,13; 5:8; Col 1:21) as so we care


  4. Curt,

    If you read/listen to Bloom, his point is that empathy can often *get in the way* of helping. As I understand him, he claims empathy has more power to cloud judgment than to clarify it. It’s not a zero-sum game–as if he is arguing empathy is inherently bad–but his point is that empathy has serious liabilities that are often not adequately considered.


  5. Brandon,
    I am not arguing against the idea that empathy can get in the way of helping, it certainly can. However, there can be no true Christian helping without empathy.


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