NY Times columnist David Brooks writes:
As Steven Pinker writes in his mind-altering new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” we are living in the middle of an “empathy craze.” There are shelfloads of books about it: “The Age of Empathy,” “The Empathy Gap,” “The Empathic Civilization,” “Teaching Empathy.” There’s even a brain theory that we have mirror neurons in our heads that enable us to feel what’s in other people’s heads and that these neurons lead to sympathetic care and moral action.Brooks nails it.
There’s a lot of truth to all this. We do have mirror neurons in our heads. People who are empathetic are more sensitive to the perspectives and sufferings of others. They are more likely to make compassionate moral judgments.
The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action. ...
There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern. ...
Moreover, Prinz argues, empathy often leads people astray. It influences people to care more about cute victims than ugly victims. It leads to nepotism. It subverts justice; juries give lighter sentences to defendants that show sadness. It leads us to react to shocking incidents, like a hurricane, but not longstanding conditions, like global hunger or preventable diseases.
Nobody is against empathy. Nonetheless, it’s insufficient. These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.
My theory is that psychologists like the empathy concept because that it how they make their money. A client comes into the shrink's office and tells a sob story, the shrink shows some empathy and bills for the service, and the client walks away as if she has benefited. So empathy is gold.
But empathy is not even necessarily a good psychological treatment technique. It is mostly a method for feel-good shrinks to manipulate patients.
The election season is warming up, and politicians are competing to try to show that they have empathy somehow. Pres. Obama has been tutored on this, as he is widely perceived as being cold and having low empathy. Others learn to recite cutesy little heartwarming stories to convince us that they have empathy. In reality, there are about 20 other more important personal characteristics for a president.
In my child custody case, I had a psychologist who kept using the word empathy whenever he had some disagreement with me. He did not even use the word consistently. If I fed my kids macaroni and he did not approve of macaroni, then he would say that I lacked empathy. If I wanted partial custody, and my ex-wife opposed it, he would say that I lacked empathy. I tried to ask him under oath what he meant by the term, and he could not define it.
The Wikipedia article on empathy lists 17 different experts who have 17 different definitions of empathy.
I take a more scientific attitude towards this sort of thing. If empathy were really so important, then it would be possible to measure it, and to do studies to show that it is effective in benefiting someone in some tangible way. As Brooks says, the studies fail to show the benefits. But the psychologists apparently do not even read their own studies.