In Defense of Empathy

During the past year, professor Paul Bloom has been trying to sell a book through clickbait headlines like “The Perils of Empathy” and “Why Empathy is Bad”. Bloom isn’t really against empathy. Rather, I think he’s trying to make a case that we shouldn’t base decisions on pure emotional sympathy. That point is getting lost in statements like these:

“While we’ve been taught that putting yourself in another’s shoes cultivates compassion, it actually blinds you to the long-term consequences of your actions.”

“…because when it comes to guiding our decisions, empathy is a moral train wreck. It makes the world worse. When we have the good sense to set it aside, we are better people and make better policy.”

That’s bananas.

Here’s what blinds us to long-term consequences: not understanding how our words and actions impact those within our sphere of influence. That sphere is big, especially if you’re connected to the Internet. A lack of empathy is sociopathy. That’s not something to aspire to.

Those who are disadvantaged or suffering certainly need our empathy and sympathy, but we can foster empathy any time we encounter somebody who has different feelings — has had different experiences — than us. That’s challenging when the difference is large.

Trying to understand somebody from a different culture or who has lived a life full of trials and tragedy can be enlightening, humbling, and rewarding. But what about empathy for those who lack experience? How about empathy for the un-empathetic? Empathy, like forgiveness, brings rewards to those who bear it, regardless of reciprocation.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is to empathize with those who we view as “wrong.” In these cases, it’s important to remember that empathy doesn’t preclude justice. It doesn’t condone. Putting myself in a criminal’s shoes does not necessarily mean pity will follow. However, it might make me supportive of programs that help ex-felons find employment. Empathy does not necessitate compromise, but it might shed light on the nuances of a complicated issue I previously saw as black and white. Trying to understand why my neighbor votes differently than me does not mean agreeing with her or finding “middle ground,” but it can help steer us towards creative solutions that work for both of us.

The world has plenty of hatred, intolerance, and polarizing points of view. Much of our media — taking its cues from us — fuels that polarization. Empathy is our chance to push back.

Empathize with this

  • Showing empathy doesn’t always mean trying to make things better, as this short RSA animation of Brene Brown illustrates.
  • If you make websites or apps for a living, make time to watch a blind person use the Internet. It will forever change how you feel about accessibility.
  • The field of User Experience is built on having empathy for users/customers. My friend Antonio Garcia shows us the importance of also empathizing with clients and co-workers.
  • Try describing political parties from the positive point of view of somebody who belongs to each party. When I was a teenager, I asked my mom what the difference was between Republicans and Democrats, and that’s how she responded.
  • One of my favorite podcasts from 2016 is the Invisibilia story about a woman who didn’t know she had Asperger’s until she was well into adulthood. Through a medical experiment, she was given a one hour glimpse of what it’s like to perceive the feelings of others.
  • Playing God” is a special Radiolab episode about making decisions when medical resources are limited. Don’t miss the last bit about a Haiti earthquake victim.
  • The More Perfect podcast covers the story of one supreme court justice whose willingness to empathize with two conflicting opinions — and consider the long term consequences — lead him to a nervous breakdown.
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