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Friday, October 16, 2015

The Dark Side of Empathy

By Paul Bloom
The Atlantic
Originally published on September 25, 2015

Here is an excerpt:

Our reaction to these atrocities can cloud our judgment, biasing us in favor of war. The benefits of war—including avenging those who have suffered—are made vivid, but the costs of war remain abstract and statistical. We see this same bias reflected in our criminal-justice system. The outrage that comes from empathy drives some of our most powerful punitive desires. It’s not an accident that so many statutes are named for dead girls—as in Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, and Caylee’s Law—and no surprise that there is now enthusiasm for “Kate’s Law.” The high incarceration rate in the United States, and our continued enthusiasm for the death penalty, is in part the product of fear and anger, but is also driven by the consumption of detailed stories of victims’ suffering.

Then there are victim-impact statements, where detailed descriptions of how victims are affected by a crime are used to help determine the sentence imposed on a criminal. There are arguments in favor of these statements, but given all the evidence that we are more prone to empathize with some individuals over others—with factors like race, sex, and physical attractiveness playing a powerful role—it’s hard to think of a more biased and unfair way to determine punishment.

The entire article is here.

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