In a recent article from the Wall Street Journal, some bold claims were made about the “perils of empathy.”

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.

You can read the article for yourself, but to summarize:

  • Empathy is widely advocated by political leaders on the right and the left.
  • There is a difference between cognitive empathy, which is understanding what is going on in people’s minds, and emotional empathy, which is sharing in other people’s feelings.
  • The author asserts that cognitive empathy is essential, while emotional empathy can be dangerous if it is applied to political and moral decisions.
  • Studies have shown that empathy can cause bias and a disregard for broader considerations.

In moral and political debates, our positions often reflect our choice of whom to empathize with. We might feel empathy with minorities abused and killed by law enforcement—or with the police themselves, whose lives are often in peril. With minority students who can’t get into college—or with white students turned away even though they have better grades. Do you empathize with the mother of a toddler who shoots himself with a handgun? Or with a woman who is raped because she is forbidden to buy a gun to defend herself? With the Syrian refugee who just wants to start a new life, or the American who loses his job to an immigrant?

What the article prescribes as an alternative to empathy, feeling the feelings of others, is compassion, which is feeling concern for others. To make an effective and humane decision we must care about both the immigrant and the displaced worker. We have to consider the plight of both the victims of gun violence as well as those who feel the need to carry a weapon for self-defense. We have to recognize that, at times, these competing interest groups overlap. 

The media will often present us with individuals who have been the victims of this or that situation. While we may be tempted to empathize, to share in that person’s outrage or despair, we have to realize that there is often another side to the story and knee-jerk reactions can simply shift the burden from one party to another. Under a system of representative government, we all bear some amount of responsibility for decision-making. Certainly, at the highest levels of government, our voices are condensed into just a few representatives, but that does not change the fact that we are involved in the decision-making process. 

It may be that a little more compassion and a little less empathy may be in order. Care about everyone involved because it is the most humane thing to do, but do not let yourself lose sight of sound reason and compassion in feeling the feelings of those involved. 

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  1. Stephen Frazier

    One sees a video of a small child, bloodied by a war he did not start and suddenly one wants to throw open the gates of the city to all refugees. Then, there is the massive manhunt for the refugee/immigrants that attacked some public gathering because of some very real wrong done to them or their country and we want to bar all refugees and kick the ones here back out. Compassion for all? Not an easy concept but, “right” doesn’t always come “easy”

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