The Problem with Empathy

A few days after reading Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassionby Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, I was stopped in Washington, D.C., traffic.  A disheveled, crippled man made his way between the traffic lanes past my car with a hand-written cardboard sign identifying himself as a disabled veteran needing money.   In that brief moment I had to make a decision.

Occasionally I give to those who ask without thinking much about it. This time I didn’t. I had just read Bloom’s book and thought of shelters and programs in the city to assist homeless disabled veterans like this man.  It was a head vs. heart moment.   Following Bloom’s advice, I went with my head.

My unpredictable responses to pan-handlers is the dilemma Bloom describes in Against Empathy, as he argues for rational compassion.  For many well-intentioned people empathy is a natural response, an emotion defined by Bloom as “the act of feeling what you believe other people feel – experiencing what they experience.”

Rational compassion, on the other hand he defines as understanding and responding to human suffering wherever it exists, in Bloom’s words: “simply caring for people and wanting them to thrive.”

Citing many studies Bloom seeks to prove that while emotions may motivate us to do good, empathy may be, and often is counterproductive, if not harmful.

At that red light I wondered if by giving to the man in the traffic I would be encouraging others to beg on the street rather than take advantage of the comprehensive programs to help homeless, destitute people?   I helped start such a program in Washington for that purpose, and I continue to support the Community of Hope and other compassionate ministries around the world.   I think that is a better way to give.

Early in the book, Bloom recognizes that arguing against empathy is a hard sell.   He notes over 1,500 books listed on Amazon with empathy in the title.     Yet as he demonstrates, empathy, which by definition is selective and biased, leads us to overlook greater needs.

For example, the outpouring of response to the horrific massacre of twenty children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.   A warehouse was needed to store all the unneeded and unwanted toys sent to the surviving children along with thousands of dollars to an otherwise wealthy neighborhood.   While, as Bloom points out, few of us are aware that more African-American children are murdered every year in Chicago than were killed at Sandy Hook.

Empathy “muddles our judgment,” the Yale News review observed.   “We are at our best,’ it said, “when we are smart enough not to rely upon it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion.”

Does empathy make us better people and the world a better place?   Not necessarily, however well intentioned we might be to walk in someone else’s shoes.


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5 Responses to The Problem with Empathy

  1. David Felter says:

    I think empathy challenges us at several levels. Human altruism is a strong, powerful element within humankind. It may even be one of the building blocks associated with enhancing humankind’s survivability. It may be that we intuit, at least intrinsically, the critical need for forming, nurturing, and preserving a sense of community, if for no other treason than our survival. Empathy may very well be a triggering mechanism; a “means” toward a proper “end.”

    Your essay and the repository from which you drew insights serve to remind me that empathy isn’t always the “end.” In the illustration you used within your essay, your readers can identify with the initial rush of what we consider to be “empathy.” We are torn between realism, altruism, and idealism. If I have a few bucks in my wallet, why shouldn’t I respond to those “empathetic” impulses and give them as a measure of altruism, knowing that to benefit another is to enrich the whole of which I am but a part.

    What caught my attention was the notion that empathy can be mistaken for sympathy. Empathy should result in a response similar to the one you made. Sympathy asks one to share, immediately, concretely, in order that such action might produce feelings of well-being within one’s self. Clearly, the initial impulse of sympathy may not be so blunt-edged; it may camouflage its intent by suggesting I shift the focus from my personal benefit, to a recognition of the fact that I saw a needy request and I responded.

    Empathy may be misunderstood because we are often shallow and superficial in our discrimination. Your response revealed both experience (ala Community of Hope experience) as well thoughtful reflection regarding long-term potential embedded in any and every communal action. Sympathy may, when unleashed without critical reflection, produce short-term alleviation without accessing those strategies for long-term transformation.

    Sympathy can often be a “one-night stand” when compared to the rigors of long-term commitment, relationship-building, and subsequent efforts to bring hope for transformation. Sympathy is often a “one-and-done” experience. Empathy engages me. Sympathy may initially recruit me vis-à-vis my momentary, vicarious appraisal of the “needy” one in front of me, but it quickly releases me from further commitment once it has released those precious endorphins that grant me pleasure and self-satisfaction.

    I confess to having been more frequently, a “sympathetic” bystander as opposed to one like yourself who “abandoned” the status in order to immerse your life in empathetic commitment offering a path to perspective transformation rather than simply ending with just the distribution of content for meeting fleeting, transitory, needs.

  2. Gene Gabbard says:

    Tom, Good piece. You went the right way! On my way walking to work at MCI in DC, I would occasional stop and talk to a man living beside a street gutter on 22nd NW. He was doing what he wanted to do. The police would take him to a shelter when the temperature dropped below freezing. As soon as the weather warmed, right back out he came. We need to be careful not to enable wrong behavior. Gene

  3. Thom Nees says:

    Hey Tom, how would you compare/contrast the perspective in is book with “Toxic Charity” Lupton, or “When Helping Hurts ” Fikkert & Corbett?

  4. Tom Nees says:

    Hello nephew Thom (Tommy) – The books you mention have much in common with Bloom’s call for ‘rational compassion.’ Years ago while at the Community of Hope I heard the criticism from those in need about well-intended but misguided efforts to help – “The helping hand strikes again.”

  5. Daniel Miller says:

    Is it perhaps possible to make a case for both rational compassion as well as empathy?

    First, the case for rational compassion. I happen to live in Europe, rather than North America. I suggest to you that much of Europe’s social systems are based upon rational compassion, while American private charity, by comparison, reflects more of an empathetic approach. There is a very logical system whereby people in need are assisted in much of Europe. Families, of course, have priority. People have a right to lodging and a roof in cold winter months. But for a single man, that ends in summer.

    National health care systems in Europe are highly rational. Highly effective treatments are fully covered. If one has an urgent problem, one is at the front of the line. European nations often spend 50% less of the GDP on health care than we do in North America.

    In each of these dimensions, I suggest that North American approaches tend to be more empathetic. As governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas pointed out in comments about Obamacare yesterday, Obamacare closed private charity clinics and replaced what I would call an “empathetic” approach to health care for the indigent with a “rational” approach. May God bless those devoted people who used to run Little Rock’s system of private charitable clinics for the indigent. But I did not sense that Governor Hutchinson was critical of this change to covering the indigent through medicaid; I sense that he was arguing that medicaid needed continued federal funding:-). Our system of private charities in North America means that you can generally get assistance if you are fortunate to be close to wealthy people who have empathy for your situation.

    In my opinion, a rational approach to care, represented by European social systems, is more efficient and guarantees benefits to more people.

    Now, let me make the case for empathy. There is a believer from Senegal, an economic migrant, who is part of my church. The elders of our congregation urged him to separate from the women with whom he was living, and an unintended consequence is that he is now homeless. My sense of empathy will not let that situation stand. “House of Hope” is a house of refuge for Muslim background believers. They can offer him no hope, despite the fact that I have a financial sponsor for his costs, because the director is out of town for the next two months, and cannot personally be here to accept him (and also because I have no long term solution for his problem). The Salvation Army can offer no salvation, because their housing center takes only those recommended by the government. Yet my sense of empathy will not rest until we find a solution for this man for whom our church helped to create a problem of homelessness. Am I right or wrong, wise or unwise, in my position of empathy, as I try to ensure that this marginalized man has some food to eat every few days, as well as ongoing access to our church’s food pantry?

    When the Syrian refugee crisis began, I could not help all Syrian refugees. But I found that I could choose to help one family. I chose to hire a Syrian private school principal in our discipleship and training ministry. She has many gifts and talents, but we have had to make an extensive long-term investment in teaching her language and computer skills. Devotions in our office also focus around helping a family process the trauma of war and what it means to be unexpected pilgrims in a strange land. As we work to develop this family’s long term funding for ministry, we have offered the family something that the European social system cannot easily offer: a sense of hope and meaning through work; a sense of social integration through being a part of our office structure and community. Most refugees in high-unemployment France are sitting in a small apartment drawing a small government stipend, and have little hope of being integrated into a tight job market. As my wife and I step out of my previous ministry to launch a new ministry, this is not a family we will abandon. This woman will come with us. We will build our new ministry around the skills of the people we have. What we receive, in exchange, is an incredibly high level of commitment and devotion from a good worker. But our decision is driven very much by empathy.

    I am a profound believer in a rational approach to charity. In my opinion, empathetic private responses should not replace rational government policy. But should we not, also, permit the Lord to move us to empathetic personal response to help, where we are able, people who are in need, over and above what such rational policies can accomplish?

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