Is empathy evil?

In his article The Perils of Empathy, Paul Bloom characterizes empathy as “a moral train wreck” that “makes the world worse.” We tend to empathize with the saddest and most familiar story, abandoning reason. He asserts that we’d be much better people if we used reason and compassion as an alternative to empathy. Could Bloom be correct?

Empathy is an inherent cognitive function — we are able to feel the pain of others as if it were our own. We’re also able to feel their hunger, joy, lust, itchiness, rage … In fact, in general we’re unable to avoid feeling other people’s feelings. This is part of our basic cognitive machinery. Remember the involuntary wince you made the last time you watched a basketball player get kicked in the groin? While you didn’t feel the kick in the same way or to the same extent as the player, your brain and body reacted. That same neural mechanism drives the social contagion of yawning, your salivation when the next table’s dinner arrives, and the pucker that appears on my face when my daughter bites into a lemon.

This sharing of feelings makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. It’s very efficient for a group of animals to learn to avoid hazards via empathy. Only one individual is damaged when something goes wrong, but everybody watching experiences the pain, and we all know to avoid the mistake in the future.

What if empathy is not just a passive, involuntary function, but one that we can exploit consciously? I call empathy a superpower. Like any superpower, empathy can be used for good or evil. And as the wise man said, with great power comes great responsibility.

Empathy is a superpower that can be used for good, or evil

In innovation and entrepreneurship, we use empathy as an investigative mechanism, like a magnifying glass for emotions. Innovators observe potential customers and stakeholders for emotional reactions to problems and ideas. We use our own empathetic responses to recognize when people are excited. From there, reason allows us to make inferences about what’s driving the excitement so we can make use of it. The combination of empathy and reason allows us to smell opportunity and act on it wisely.

We can use empathy as a tool in parenting too. I’m not talking about being nice or feeling sorry for someone who’s behaving badly. I’m talking about consciously exploiting our mirror neurons to feel the child’s emotion, make inferences about what might be driving those emotions, and make more pragmatic choices about how to respond.

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING DRAWING ON THE WALL!” is a natural response to a toddler’s excited scribbling. Maybe shouting is reasonable under the circumstances! It certainly stops the bad behavior in the moment. But shouting is not as powerful or as effective in the long run as recognizing the child’s feelings and making use of them. “I can see you’re excited about drawing on the wall! Here’s a sponge to clean that off. Then let’s tape some paper up there and you can go to town!” It’s easy to imagine analogous uses of empathy in adult disagreement.

Certainly, empathy is a double-edged sword. Because of empathy, a child’s rage can trigger a parent’s rage and vice versa — classic escalation scenario. If we’re not aware our that empathy is forcing us to share someone else’s emotions, we’re at the mercy of those emotions. If we know that empathy is operating, we can use it to gather emotional data to feed our reason and compassion.

I’m with Bloom when he says that compassion and reason should lead the way if we want a better world. And I’m grateful for his message that we need to be cautious about empathy — empathy can be and is often used as a basis for manipulation to trigger a knee-jerk response. But he proposes that we replace empathy with compassion and reason. That’s neither possible nor desirable. Empathy is a tool we can use consciously in the service of compassion, reason and innovation.

Empathy ~= agreement

Bloom gives an example from a study in which participants were encouraged to empathize with a needy student in a competition with a financial reward. This manipulation led participants to torment the needy student’s blameless competitor. This is the risk of involuntary empathy.

Standing in someone else’s shoes means experiencing someone’s emotions. It does not equate to torturing their enemies, or to any particular action at all. We’re feeling the person’s feelings, not signing on to their worldview or taking on their well-being at any cost. Empathy is the inherent human gift of understanding someone else’s perspective from the inside out. That powerful listening gives us a shot at speaking in a way that can be heard, and acting in a way that can have impact.

Try this: The next time a powerful story invites you to stand in the shoes of just one person involved in a crisis, take the invitation. And then consciously, deliberately apply your empathy superpower to everyone else involved in the crisis — collect all of the emotional data you can. One by one, stand in the shoes of each person involved. The shout-er and the shout-ee. The winner and the loser. The parent and the child.

Conscious empathy isn’t easy. Alas, it might not be much fun. It certainly doesn’t provide straightforward answers the way that unconscious empathy sometimes seems to. But think of the material you’re providing to your higher mental functions! What might reason and compassion accomplish if they were fed by conscious, deliberate empathy for everyone, instead of involuntary empathy for the saddest and most familiar story?

Empathy isn’t evil. It swings both ways. Use with caution and with vigor!

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