Why Empathy is the Quintessential Moral Tool

Writers change the world. That’s the whole theme of this magazine. But the dark side is that writers can change the world for the worse (Ayn Rand, I’m looking at you). We readers have to be careful not to fall for propaganda disguised as thoughtful dialogue.

What am I talking about?

There is a book. This book keeps getting reviews that treat it’s premise as if it has made a good point.

I am not going to name the book. I will name the premise: that empathy is immoral. Yes, really. The author of this book is presumably smart, given his day job and degrees. But his premise — and his book — is dangerous hogwash.

If you instinctively recognize why this is hogwash, go about your day. You don’t need to read further. You are immune to this nasty propaganda.

If you are at all taken by the idea that you can toss empathy into the pile of useless crap you don’t need to be a good human being, please read on.

You are being played. Language is a wonderful thing, except when it is used as a propaganda weapon. The idea that empathy is immoral is a propaganda weapon. A full, book-length, well-argued propaganda weapon meant to weaken the idea that empathy is a good tool in our human being toolbox.

How can you tell? Well, empathy is one of those tools that we use when we’re trying to figure out why someone would do something that doesn’t seem sensible. I’m going to bring up an old incident that made the news years ago — a working mom had no babysitter for her daughter and so she brought her to work and left her in the car while she worked.

Shocked! Bad judgement! Bad mom!

Now, let’s apply the empathy tool and walk a mile in the mom’s shoes:

  • The mom would get fired for not showing up, thereby not being able to take care of her daughter’s basic needs.
  • Her babysitter quit. There were no friends who could step in.
  • She did not want to leave her daughter in her apartment alone, where she could not check on her or ensure her safety.
  • She made up the hatchback of the car so that her daughter would be comfortable and not be visible to passersby.
  • She went out frequently to check on her daughter (which, ironically, is how she got found out).

So. Empathy applied tells us this mom meant well. Her decision seemed like the right one to her. We don’t — and this is the important part — think she made the right decision, but we understand that her decision was not made to be neglectful, but instead to care for her daughter and keep her job.

Bad judgment, but not bad mom.

Without empathy, without standing in that mom’s shoes for a few uncomfortable minutes, we cannot understand why she thought her decision made sense. We just think she’s a bad mom. Understanding her decision process is critical to making the right judgement as to consequences, if we’re on a jury — or to helping out, if we’re a friend watching another friend do something monumentally wrongheaded.

Understanding why is the key to knowing how to solve the fundamental problem (helping a single working mom create a safety net that will ensure she never has to make such a decision again). You can, of course, use “rational compassion” as the unnamed author suggests — just take the emotion out of immoral empathy and — voila! — you have “rational compassion.”

One problem with that argument — morality is emotional at its core. Morality is born of faith, the most supreme emotion of them all. The law is rational. If you take the emotion out of morality, you neuter it. You have rational judgment, not rational compassion (compassion, by the way, is also emotional, so the author’s attempt to create a better version of empathy is just…wrong).

For example, in the case of that young mother, you have to really feel her conflict: lose job/keep child safe. She didn’t make a careless decision. She was careful and intentional. She considered and mitigated some of the risks involved with her decision. She wanted her child to be safe and comfortable. She wanted to keep her job. You have to empathize, not sympathize with or have compassion for her. Otherwise, you won’t get it.

All propaganda has some form of truth to it, though, or it doesn’t stick as an argument. The author makes a case that walking in someone’s shoes (empathy) makes us favor the people we empathize with over the “others.” Clearly, that’s a bad thing.

Also, clearly (except to the author who wrote an entire book on the subject, and all the reviewers who actually think he has a point), that is not empathy. There is already a perfectly good word for favoring some folks over others: tribalism.

Empathy is a tool in the human being tool box that is meant to rise above tribalism. Empathy is not meant to be applied only to those in our own tribe. It is meant to be applied to everyone, in equal fashion. It is meant to banish the othering that tribalism fosters. That is the whole point of empathy, after all. Remember the Good Samaritan? Yep. Empathy over Tribalism.

If you still think there is any possibility that empathy is immoral — no. Just. No.

If you think empathy does not need to be re-defined, or cast out of the toolbox of humankind, please push back against this propaganda. It is easy to think that no rational human being could be fooled by such hogwash…

…but this book was written by a well-pedigreed person at a well-pedigreed publishing house. It is getting reviewed seriously with phrases like “makes a good case against empathy.”

I’ve tweeted a few “are you kidding me with this” tweets about it already. This last review compelled me to speak up and out.

Empathy is one of the most important tools in the human being toolbox.

Please stand up and say so. Let’s shut this nonsense down, now, before it can do real harm.

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