The Tribulations of Empathy

It would seem intuitive that empathy is an inherently positive quality: what could be wrong with being able to deeply feel or think what other someone else is experiencing? Most acts of compassion and altruism are predicated on being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and subsequently seeking to better their circumstances; without a fundamental understanding of one’s circumstances and  needs, it is arguably harder to rouse yourself into acting for their benefit.

But an article in The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman challenges the importance of empathy in ethical decision-making, going so far as to suggest that it may even be a handicap:

The problem is that empathy – the attempt to feel or think how someone else is feeling or thinking – isn’t a reliable way of doing good. For one thing, we find it easier to empathise with better-looking people, and with those of the same race, so the more we rely on empathy as a guide to action, the more we’re vulnerable to such biases. We also get entangled in the “identifiable victim effect”: empathy makes us care more about, say, the single missing child than the thousands who might be harmed by a government policy, never mind the as-yet-unborn victims of future global warming. Bloom quotes the economist Thomas Schelling: “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… Let it be reported that without a sales tax the [hospitals] of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths – not many will drop a tear.” A surfeit of empathy may hurt the empathetic, too: it’s been linked to burnout and depression, neither of which make people better at helping others.

This touches on two interesting problems related to misplaced and/or excessive empathy.

One is psychic numbing, whereby individuals or even entire societies give little to know attention to threats that are far-off, geographically distant, and of low probability — even though they are otherwise of massive consequences. A familiar example would be how more people seem mourn or focus upon a high-profile tragedy involving one or a few individuals, whereas genocides, famines, or calamities like climate change attract far less attention, much less action.

There are many interesting reasons why this discrepancy exists, among the most prominent being that we can better empathize with one or a few individuals than we can with faceless (and often foreign) millions — the old adage of one death being a tragedy and a million being a mere statistic. Our cognitive capacity is limited and can only connect with so many people before it fails to really impact us; similarly, we can only look so far ahead, and things like climate change are on a scale of complexity that is difficult to grasp on a strictly visceral level.

The second issue touched on in this except is compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress, in which individuals or societies demonstrate reduced compassion over a period of time. Unsurprisingly, this problem is most often observed among those who work with, live, or are exposed most to those that suffer: first responders, nurses, psychologists, aid workers, and the like. Over time, one can become more cynical, depressed, prone to sleeplessness, unfocused, or demonstrate other signs of hardheartedness and negativity.

On a collective level, this can be very problematic: it has been argued that the over-saturation of media with de-contextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering has led to a more misanthropic and withdrawn society. Again, the familiar example is how fairly tolerant we seem to be of large-scale problems, ranging from growing poverty in the U.S. to the massive catastrophes immiserating millions abroad. After a certain point, we grow weary from it all and would much rather ignore it. We are busy and troubled enough without having to empathize with so much pain and suffering.

In light of these points, what would the alternative be? If empathy is insufficient on its own, how best do we go about making constructive and ethical decisions?

It’s hard to accept that we might sometimes get a clearer picture of the world by resisting the urge to step into someone else’s shoes. Yet depersonalising things is often the best way to make decisions. That’s why job interviews can be more meritocratic – and less prone to sexism or racism – when they don’t include a free-wheeling “getting to know you” section, relying instead on structured tests. Tyler Cowen, the blogger and economist, recommends soliciting feedback not by asking “what do you think?” – the personalised version – but “what do most people think?”

Instead of empathy, Bloom concludes, we need compassion: a cooler, more rational, “more distanced love, kindness and concern for others”. A relative of his undergoing cancer treatment doesn’t like medical staff who overflow with empathy: “He gets the most from doctors who are calm when he is anxious, confident when he is uncertain.” As the Saturday Night Live writer Jack Handey wrote, before you criticise someone, walk a mile in their shoes: that way, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes. But if you want to help them, staying planted in your own shoes may be preferable. Sure, I could feel your pain. But wouldn’t you rather I did something about it?

In short, it would appear that, as with many things, the best course of action is a balanced one — we try our best to really feel for the suffering of others while keeping just enough of a distance to have a clear head on how to determine the best course of action. It seems sensible, and I can personally relate with both extremes: owing to my own bouts of depression and compassion fatigue, I find myself at times to be either too distant or too empathetic, and in either state I feel off. It is only when I have struck that delicate golden mean between empathy and dispassion that I feel hopeful in making a decision. But such an arrangement can be difficult to maintain without conscious effort, and one can only be so emotional or so distant before breaking down.

But that is just my experience and observation. What about you all?


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