“The Case Against Empathy”

A subtitle like “The Case Against Empathy” is probably as good a reason as many other to read an article.  Empathy, feeling for another individual’s plight, is surely a good thing, and is properly praised. No?

This enthusiasm may be misplaced, however. Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.

The core of the argument is quite simple: empathy, and empathic emotions and responses  tend to be triggered by specific incidents and specific individuals; however the truly awful tragedies are at such a large scale that there is no particular identifiable victim (no little Jane, no young Sam, no Maddie, etc), but rather thousands or hundreds of thousands of corpses. And many truly awful tragedies are not singular events (like a tornado, a tsunami, etc), they are instead long protracted wars that no longer make it to the news given the banality of tragedy. Two obvious real cases:


The article asks us to consider the following examples and cases:

 when [a little girl] disappeared, the story of her plight took up far more television time than the concurrent genocide in Darfur. Each day, more than ten times the number of people who died in Hurricane Katrina die because of preventable diseases, and more than thirteen times as many perish from malnutrition.


 Imagine reading that two thousand people just died in an earthquake in a remote country, and then discovering that the actual number of deaths was twenty thousand. Do you now feel ten times worse? To the extent that we can recognize the numbers as significant, it’s because of reason, not empathy.


In one study people were asked how best to punish a company for producing a vaccine that caused the death of a child. Some were told that a higher fine would make the company work harder to manufacture a safer product; others were told that a higher fine would discourage the company from making the vaccine, and since there were no acceptable alternatives on the market the punishment would lead to more deaths. Most people didn’t care; they wanted the company fined heavily, whatever the consequence.

The examples show that empathy is an unreliable, and non proportional response. In fact,  empathy for a single existing actual victim can lead to producing more future victims. Therefore, as the article points out:

There’s a larger pattern here. Sensible policies often have benefits that are merely statistical but victims who have names and stories.

An alternative way of framing the same issue, is to say that true empathy requires us to go beyond superficial emotional reactions to tragedies. Instead empathy should move us to properly consider what tragedies deserve our attention, outrage, and action. To recognize that hunger and war and poverty (and not single events with single victims) kill millions of (our) brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and fathers and mothers everywhere and all the time.  To that extent  “the case against empathy” is a very strong one as far as I can see. 


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