Nearly everyone agrees that they want their children to be empathetic. In fact, it is one of the few things we can all agree on in our polarized society.
We commonly ask small children questions like, “How do you think it made Emily feel when you told her she couldn’t play with you?”
We teach young elementary schoolers to identify the emotions of others based on photographs of human faces.
At Christmastime, it’s common for parents to discuss with their children how the less fortunate may be feeling at this time of year and how we can help.
Empathy, the ability to put ourselves in another’s place and understand their experience, can only help our children lead good lives, right? Not so, according to Paul Bloom, author of this WSJ essay, The Peril of Empathy.
Bloom’s thesis is that, “In politics and policy, trying to feel the pain of others is a bad idea. Empathy distorts our reasoning and makes us biased, tribal, and often cruel.”
As I read this, I began mentally composing my rebuttal of Bloom’s argument. Empathy makes us cruel?! That seems nonsensical. But as I read Bloom’s essay, I found myself agreeing with much of what he claimed about the way people make moral decisions and how their feelings influence these decisions. He cites examples such as people’s tendency to grant unfair advantage to someone whose story they’ve been told, and people’s increased empathy for others share sports team loyalties. None of this is new or surprising.
The whole world has known for quite some time that the Syrian government is killing it’s own citizens and that the Syrian people are undergoing unspeakable suffering. And yet, most of us- myself included- did nothing.
Then the photograph of Alan Kurdi was published in the fall of 2015.
3 year-old Alan drowned when his family attempted to escape Syria, and his small body lay washed ashore a Turkish beach, curled in a prone position, as though sleeping.
When I saw the photo for the first time, I sobbed. When I watch my children nap through the baby monitor, that is how they sleep. Their legs tucked beneath their bellies, bottoms up in the air, arms at their sides. But they are safe, peaceful in their cribs. I was completely overwhelmed with thoughts of how Alan’s final moments were terror-filled, and the despair his father must have felt as the sea water pulled his wife and children from his arms.
We donated to Catholic Relief Services’ Syrian fund that day. So doesn’t that contradict Bloom’s argument? Can’t empathy be a catalyst for generosity and outreach? Yes, it can. But that isn’t Bloom’s point.
As I reread his essay, I realized that his use of “empathy” and “compassion” were what was hanging me up. Bloom defines empathy as feeling others’ pain, and compassion as feeling for and not with the other. I have to depart from him here, as compassion literally means, “to suffer with” (com-passi0).
Though I take issue with his definitions, particularly of compassion, what Bloom is really saying is that our feelings are not a good basis for decision making, for moral judgments, or for policy positions. Amen. A thousand times, amen.
We all know there is nothing we can buy which will bring us happiness. But that hasn’t stopped us from trying yet. Have you ever spent beyond your means in an attempt to acquire joy? Ever consumed far more food and wine than is reasonable because you were having fun? Done something wildly dangerous and risky for the thrill?
It’s not that emotions are bad. They’re not. They’re a part of the human experience. But making decisions on the basis of how we feel about something or someone is very dangerous. First, our emotions can and do change on a whim. Second, our emotions are our most easily manipulated faculty. All the great villains of human history have gained and wielded power by exploiting the emotional biases of others. Third, what feels good is not always what is good.
So how can our emotional responses inspire works of charity and generosity without risking the parochial biases and cruelties they can also evoke?
If we are just, we are less likely to levy unfairly harsh punishments inspired by anger and hurt.
If we are prudent, we are less likely to impulsively blow next month’s mortgage payment because we’re having fun on vacation.
If we have fortitude, we are less likely to walk away from a family relationship that’s frustrating and difficult.
This transfers to the decisions we make and beliefs we hold about public policies and moral issues as well.
We are living at a time when most people’s political and philosophical positions are inspired by Facebook memes and cute slogans that attempt to recruit support through emotional appeals. In this environment, it’s all the more important that we subject our emotions to the virtuous exercise of our reason and will. Otherwise, we risk acting in ways that are hysterical, short-sighted, and narrow-minded.
In the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, partisans have used appeals to empathy to advance their own causes. One the one hand, we have people who want refugees to be completely banned from entry into the country. They caricature them as extremist Muslim terrorists who will use refugee status to gain entry to America, where they will commit acts of violence and exploit social resources. They play upon fear and nativism to advance their cause. On the other hand, others advocate for completely abandoning caution and throwing open the doors to whomever may want to enter. They evoke heartrending images of those who suffer at the hands of their native country and depict those with reservations as racists and bigots. They play upon pity and self-righteousness to advance their cause.
I don’t pretend to have a magic solution to this crisis that remains unsolved by diplomatic experts. But I do know that allowing myself to be carried away by emotional appeals isn’t the answer.
Part of the answer is generosity- giving to those organizations who help refugees.
Part of the answer is faith- praying for refugees.
Part of the answer is hospitality- welcoming refugees and immigrants who live in my community.
Part of the answer is justice- working for and supporting organizations that work for just communities around the world.
Empathy, and our feelings as a whole, can be powerful tools for good or for evil. When we make them the servants of reason and virtue, we wield their power for good.