Empathy and Evil: Why Our Feelings Fail
By Heath Shive
You might think empathy was a “magic bullet” that would solve problems. Empathy – whereby I feel your feelings as if they were my own – guides us to treat others as we treat ourselves. Bullying, abuse, racial hatred, and political division all stem from a lack of empathy, right?
But our feelings have an inherent bias. Empathy does not require a rational, factual framework to exist. Humans only have so much emotional energy – and we can waste our empathy on the wrong things.
Robert E. Lee and Empathy’s Lack of Wisdom
The famous Confederate general Robert E. Lee acknowledged that slavery was a “moral & political evil.” For that matter, he believed that the secession of Virginia (his home state) from the Union was unconstitutional.
So why did he fight for the Confederacy during the American Civil War?
Lee empathized more with the South than with Union politics. He valued his identity as a Virginian over his identity as a citizen of the United States.
On the whole, empathy is a poor moral guide. As Paul Bloom – author of the book Against Empathy – writes: “It grounds foolish judgments and…can lead to irrational and unfair political decisions…”
Because of his empathy, Lee fought for the Confederacy and ended up preserving slavery and secession (the very things that he acknowledged as evil) for five extra years.
Empathy Is Always Biased
Empathy is a spotlight – by focusing on one thing, we ignore all other things. That focus will make us blind to a bigger picture.
In 2005, an American teenager named Natalee Holloway went missing while on vacation in Aruba (her body has never been found). Holloway’s disappearance became a media sensation, especially on Fox and Headline News.
Psychologist Paul Slovic pointed out that when Holloway went missing, the story of her plight took up far more television time than the concurrent genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
Americans found it easier to empathize with the plight of one American girl than with the hundreds of victimized girls on another continent.
Evolutionary psychology experiments have shown that we prefer and focus on the people that most resemble us. We are born with instincts to prefer those of our family, bloodline, and tribe more than prefer those outside of our experience. We even prefer the company of people who agree with us politically, share the same religion, or even share the same favorite football team.
This isn’t a racism or bigotry per se. There’s a big difference between bias and hatred. There’s a big difference between liking what you are versus hating others who differ.
Empathy will reveal our biases – even if those biases are natural.
However, empathy can also be connected – via our imagination – to people who have no resemblance to us at all. How else could have Yankee abolitionists have empathized with African slaves? How else could people around the world fight to preserve endangered species? How else could different people, even different ethnicities, share a common patriotism?
Good or bad, empathy will always have an inherent bias – a narrow focus, an innumeracy, or a preference. As psychologist Paul Bloom writes, “It’s only when we escape from empathy and rely instead on the application of rules…that we can, to at least some extent, become fair and impartial.”
Empathy Is a Feeling, Not a Doing
It’s important to separate empathy from compassion. Empathy is a feeling; compassion is a doing. An act of kindness requires an action, not emotion.
Many feel sorry about the post-hurricane tragedy in Puerto Rico – but they do not send aid. Many Americans despise abortion – but they do no adopt orphan children or abandoned babies.
Your empathy will protect your feelings by distorting the facts of your actions. This is “the moralization gap” – the tendency of people to diminish the severity of their own acts relative to those of others. Hitler famously loved dogs and despised the cruelty of hunting. Bush Administration officials who knowingly lied about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction have never been tried for treason or war crimes. Corporate executives who have no problem downsizing or outsourcing working jobs (subjecting many to monetary difficulty) become angry anytime someone mentions an increase in capital gains tax.
Especially in the age of social media, many have no problems expressing their opinions and beliefs (their feelings). But what good do they accomplish? It becomes emotion for emotion’s sake…and too often, hate for hate’s sake.
We can feel wonderful things. We can feel terrible things too.
There is more to emotional maturity than merely feeling. What we do – and how we do it – is the test of emotional maturity.
Bloom, Paul. Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Ecco, 2016.
Slovic, Paul; David Zionts; Andrew K. Woods; Ryan Goodman; Derek Jinks (August 2011). "Psychic numbing and mass atrocity". New York University School of Law: 1–17.
Thomas, Emory M. Robert E. Lee: A Biography. W. W. Norton, 1995. p. 173.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.