I feel for Jeremy Rifkin. In 2010, Rifkin, a public intellectual and best-selling author, published a remarkable book titled The Empathic Civilization. In it, Rifkin argues (1) that humans are soft-wired for empathic feelings toward others and that (2) this potential has to be fostered if we are to survive, as a species, on our precious little planet. The book is a tour-de-force, in which ideas, data from various disciplines and anecdotes are built upon to make a case for empathy. Rifkin is not always very precise, or even correct in reporting scientific findings, but by and large his thesis holds. Empathy is good for you, and for others, and as a society we should do our best to foster it. Yet, Rifkin’s ideas have been the target of a rather intense attack by several eminent scholars, notably psychologists Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker, and philosopher Jesse Prinz. What’s not to agree with in Pinker’s ideas?

Bloom, Pinker and Prinz, echoed by New York Times’ columnist David Brooks, do not think that we should rely on empathy to build a better world. Let’s review some of their ideas.

A good start is Brooks’ article. The article elicited a host of reactions among readers and, not surprisingly, among scholars who formally study empathy. These scholars saw decades of research findings dismissed in an 800-word piece destined to a reading public of hundreds of thousands. Brooks builds his argument “against” empathy from Steven Pinker’s last book (The Better Angels of Our Nature) and a chapter by Jesse Prinz, titled “Is Empathy Necessary for Morality.” The latter is a concise piece, which can be easily read over a 6 oz cup of coffee. Pinker’s is an 800-pages book, which deals with much more than this specific question, and requires a several gallons of coffee, and a great deal of determination, to be conquered.

Cover of The Social Neuroscience of Empathy © The MIT Press | Amazon.com
Cover of The Social Neuroscience of Empathy edited by Jean Decety and William Ickes © The MIT Press | Amazon.com

What can be found in these readings? I found partial relief from the dismay I felt reading Brooks’ piece. In Prinz’ piece, I found relief simply because he is clearly wrong. In Pinker’s, I found relief because the analysis is much more complex, and his conclusion more open-ended, than they appear in David Brooks’ framing of them. First, let’s focus on Prinz, who argues that empathy is not only mal-suited to boost moral behavior, but actually detrimental to it. Prinz, a philosopher, builds heavily on psychological research to boost his argument, but he settles early-on for a rather narrow definition of empathy. Specifically, he reduces empathy to catching the emotion of another person and the feeling of distress at witnessing another’s person suffering. Granted, the term Empathy has been used to mean a host of different things, and disagreement exists among researchers, mostly psychologists. Yet, one thing we would likely agree on, is that reducing empathy to catching another person’s emotion, or experiencing personal distress, is unwarranted and inappropriate. Particularly if it is done without discussing the many other dimensions. In The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, leading scholar Daniel Batson enumerates eight different dimensions of Empathy. For our purposes here, it is best to juxtapose the Personal Distress dimension Prinz favors, to that of Empathic Concern, or Sympathy: feeling for another person who is suffering. While decades of empirical research have shown Personal Distress to have a negative relation to prosocial behavior, and a positive relation to antisocial behavior, it is Empathic Concern and the cognitive aspect of Empathy, Perspective Taking, that give Empathy its good name. These two have been shown to do a great deal of good to interpersonal and intergroup relations.

What about Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. After examining our inner demons, Pinker turns to (expanded) Empathy as a candidate to explain the decline of violence in human history (i.e., the focus of the book). Pinker does not make Prinz’ mistake. He acknowledges the complexity of the concept, and he differentiates between two types of prosocial behavior: that born out of the need to relieve our own distress when witnessing the suffering of others, and that born out a more altruistic, better “angel,” namely Empathic Concern (which he, as other empathy scholars, calls sympathy). Pinker does conclude that we cannot rely on Empathy to better our world, but he does so based on his skepticism that the circle of empathy can be expanded to include, well, everybody. In so doing, he takes a stab at Jeremy Rifkin’s claim that to save our planet and ourselves, we have to recognize and foster our inner Homo Empathicus.

These ideas were echoed in a piece by Paul Bloom, that appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year. He, too, takes a stab at Rifkin’s call for extending the boundaries of empathy so to include all human beings, and the bio-sphere… Bloom:

Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.

Bloom, too, is rooting for norms over empathy. It seems difficult to disagree with Bloom, too, right? How can we feel for EVERYBODY? There is plenty of work suggesting that we curtail empathy in a variety of contexts, precisely because (psychologically) we cannot afford to continuously feel others’ pain (I have written about this in a chapter for the Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology). Also, empathy can have some paradoxical effects. Anecdotal evidence tells us that donations to help a specific child afflicted by a rare yet curable disease will pour in. But a call for funds to conduct research on the disease that is casted in more abstract terms will be much less successful. Stalin is reported as saying “A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic.” This is known as the “identifiable victim effect” and it is supported by psychological experiments.

On the bases of this kind of paradoxes, and on the fact that it seems unlikely that we can extend our empathic feelings to the whole humanity, Pinker, Prinz and Bloom, among others, argue at worst that empathy can in fact be damaging, and at best that it should “yield to reason” – as Bloom puts it.

Reason, and norms, can certainly inform our practices, and there is little doubt that both have been powerful forces in bettering the world we live in. But somehow pitting empathy against reason and norms, seems highly misconceived. We have long distinguished between conventional and moral norms, and psychological research findings confirm that these are two separate domains, that even young children can easily tease apart. For conventional norms, empathy clearly seems unnecessary. Empathy, however, is much more of an integral part in the development of moral norms. And I would also contend that the norms would not be compelling were they not linked to empathic feelings. I am a pro-choice individual, but I can only maintain this position by convincing myself that the fetus is not quite human – at least not in the early stages. My anti-abortion counterpart puts the fetus squarely within humanity, and this motivates his moral position. The difference is precisely in whether or not we include the fetus within the moral community of beings to which we extend empathic feelings. Abortion opinions are likely to be part of a broader ideological self-positioning, religious beliefs, and other self-definition at the collective level. Yet, when one scratches the surface, it really boils down to whether or not you empathize with the fetus.

Amygdala activation and perspective taking in relation to empathy. © Jean Decety | Decety Lab
Amygdala activation and perspective taking in relation to empathy. © Jean Decety | Decety Lab

Support for gay marriage is another case in point. Surely, it is mostly framed in terms of “protecting the family as nature intended” versus “guaranteeing equal rights to all.” Yet, here as well, the issue is whether you consider gays as fully fledged (not flawed) human beings, and thus include them in the same moral community as heterosexuals. Senator Portman (Republican, OH), fought same-sex marriage for years, but he changed his mind after his son came out as gay. He was somehow forced to either include homosexuals in the same human community in which he was, or to exclude his own son from it – and he got his priorities right.

Ultimately what we think the limits of empathy are depends on whether we side with Pinker or with Rifkin on the question of the relationship between empathy and social categorization.

Pinker argues that empathy stops at the border of our in-group, which is basically the family and close friends, with whom we share a communal relationship. Beyond that, we’d better rely on other “angels,” such as a moral code. Rifkin, in The Empathic Civilization, argues that we are soft-wired for an empathic connection, and that empathy is precisely what is needed to break down ethnic, religious, and other social divides, so that prosocial attitudes and behavior can be extended to outsiders. I do not think we are ready to adjudicate between these two views, but I am skeptical that we can build a better, more peaceful and moral society by simply relying on moral codes, with no empathic concern for the well-being of those that are outside of our socially constructed in-groups.

Take the European Union, for instance (coincidentally, a topic on which Rifkin wrote a remarkable book). It is true that common laws and regulations have fostered unprecedented integration among European countries. Yet, when confronted with important crises, the Union vacillates, and there are serious concerns about its capacity to weather these tumultuous times. A mutually reinforcing common European identity and a cross-nation extension of empathic concern for the welfare of other European citizens, appear to be the missing soul, or, to keep with biblical references, the missing angel.

2 thoughts on “The Attack on Empathy

  1. You provide a useful example for where rationality and empathy meets. You write that,

    “The difference is precisely in whether or not we include the fetus within the moral community of beings to which we extend empathic feelings. Abortion opinions are likely to be part of a broader ideological self-positioning, religious beliefs, and other self-definition at the collective level. Yet, when one scratches the surface, it really boils down to whether or not you empathize with the fetus”

    I’m rationally pro-choice because I empathize with the fetus.

    It’s for the reason I know of the data that shows countries with abortion bans don’t decrease the abortion rate and in some cases actually increase it. This is because countries with pro-choice policies also tend to have liberal policies (comprehensive sex education, family planning, women’s healthcare, birth control availability, etc) that prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

    In countries with abortion bans, all that happens is that abortions become illegal. It’s similar to how alcohol use increased during Prohibition and drug use has increased since the beginning of the war on drugs. Making something illegal doesn’t give people the resources, opportunities, and ability to find better choices.

    My rational analysis is motivated by empathy. I’m a bleeding heart liberal. So, I care more about real world results than mere abstract principles and dogmatic beliefs.

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