One of our most powerful, affective emotions is our ability to feel or relate to the condition of another. While emotions such as grief and guilt often lead to paralysis, empathy leads us to action. We witness the suffering of someone in our community, read an emotive Facebook post of a friend in need of help, or hear the pained cries of our child and are moved to act. (We donate money to a personal cancer fund, offer advice, and comfort our child.) Why? Because we, in part, are able to personally feel the experience of that person standing outside ourselves. We are hit by an emotional wave that is personal, and that wave pushes us forward.
And this is a beautiful human characteristic – a trait that evolution has bestowed upon us, this instinctive, emotional pull to help others by feeling their pain and suffering. It’s an emotion cognitive neuroscientists are currently researching, trying to understand how it works. For if we learn how empathy truly functions, perhaps we can evoke with greater regularity this beautiful, moral emotion.
However, this beautiful human characteristic – beneficial when the world is small, say a family or a village – has become a liability and, in some cases, a destructive force in our world.
In some ways, empathy is killing us.
This is the case Paul Bloom makes in The New Yorker, where he explores how the parochial and narrow borders that define empathy are working against us in a global world where we affect not just those around us, but those across this planet.
This becomes remarkably clear with regard to climate change, where opponents of environmental regulations can prey upon our empathetic responses by coaxing us to feel for the business owner who will suffer if carbon emission restrictions are tightened.
Consider global warming…opponents of restrictions on CO2emissions are flush with identifiable victims – all those who will be harmed by increased costs, by business closures. The millions of people who at some unspecified future date will suffer the consequences of our current inaction are, by contrast, pale statistical abstractions.
The government’s failure to enact prudent long-term policies is often attributed to the incentive system of democratic politics (which favors short-term fixes), and to the powerful influence of money. But the politics of empathy is also to blame. Too often, our concern for specific individuals today means neglecting crises that will harm countless people in the future.
We cannot possibly feel emotionally the lives of those who do not yet exist, nor can we emotionally absorb the staggering numbers of those who will suffer and perish as a result of climate change. But we can feel for a business owner whose family may suffer under the weight of government regulations. We can see it. And in this context, empathy fails us.
Empathy is failing us on a global scale. It often fails us domestically in the political sphere as well. Opposition to Obamacare or gun control can be attributed to political ideologies which sublimate empathy. However, such opposition can also be attributed the “politics of empathy” in which each side vies for an empathetic response. While progressives (such as myself) point to the children at Sandy Hook as clear evidence for our need to tightly regulate firearms, conservatives (backed by gigantic sums of NRA-funded money) point to those helpless, unarmed victims. And America empathizes.
Empathy is also why we, as a society, can become obsessed by a kidnapped girl or trapped coal miners, but barely blink when told that a veteran in America commits suicide, on average, every day or that approximately 30,000 incidents of gun violence occur in the U.S. every year.
It’s not that we’re callous. It’s that we can only empathize with or truly feel what is personal and recognizable.
Here’s Bloom again:
The key to engaging empathy is what has been called “the identifiable victim effect.” As the economist Thomas Schelling, writing forty-five years ago, mordantly observed, “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths – not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.”
Now, this isn’t an argument against empathy. We need it in our world, in our lives, if we are to help others and care for those outside ourselves. Indeed, we need more of it, in many respects.
However, if we are to survive as a society, if our planet is to survive, we are going to somehow have to become smart enough to rely on reason, and not empathy, to make our most important decisions. Yes, we will always be moral. And empathy will always, as an emotion, focus our attention on the personal stories we encounter. As it should.
But our survival depends, paradoxically, on our ability to overcome our emotionally-informed morality. On our ability to look at climate change statistics and say, “Yes, I must act. Immediately.”
Follow David Harris-Gershon on Twitter @David_EHG