By Lea Winerman
May 2017, Vol 48, No. 5
Print version: page 27
Here is an excerpt:
Why do you believe this kind of empathy is overrated?
I should be clear that I'm not against empathy in general. I think it's a great source of pleasure, for instance, and it plays some role in intimate relationships. But when it comes to moral judgments, empathy makes a very poor guide.
One reason is that it's biased. You naturally empathize with people who in some way are part of your circle, who look like you, who maybe share your ethnicity. So, for example, if you base your charitable giving choices on empathy, you find yourself inevitably giving to people who [are like you], and ignoring the plight of thousands, maybe millions of others.
Another problem is that empathy is innumerate. It's a spotlight—you zoom in on one person, as opposed to many. Some people think that this is one of its advantages. But real-world moral decisions involve coping with numbers. They often involve a recognition, for instance, that helping just one person can make lives worse for hundreds or thousands of others. The innumeracy of empathy often leads to paradoxical situations where we're desperate to help a single person—or even a cute puppy—while ignoring crises like climate change, because although millions of people will be affected by it, there's no identifiable victim to zoom in on.
A third problem is that empathy can be weaponized. So, unscrupulous politicians use our empathy for victims of certain crimes to motivate anger and hatred toward other, marginalized, groups. We saw a lot of that in the last election season.
The article is here.