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Hillary has a point: In defense of empathy and justice

Hillary Rodham Clinton had a point when she recently urged: “The most important thing each of us can do… is to try even harder to see the world through our neighbors’ eyes, to imagine what it is like to walk in their shoes, to share their pain and their hopes and their dreams.”

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom objected that we can’t actually do that (at least not as well as we think we can), especially when our neighbor is someone in a quite different situation or condition—say, a stressed-out single parent, a traumatically scarred war veteran, or an autistic child. Besides, declared Bloom, even if we could fully and accurately feel and see from another’s perspective, empathy is often too narrow and parochial to serve as a moral guide. Far less limited, Bloom asserts, is reason: specifically, the impartial principles and procedures of justice. We should “step back” from empathy and “apply an objective and fair morality,” a “dispassionate analysis” of distressing situations. Bloom has even declared that “empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to survive.”

Although like Bloom we defend justice, we also defend a corrected empathy against Bloom’s objections. Bloom goes too far in advocating the banishment of empathy from the realm of morality. We should try, as Hillary urged, to take others’ perspectives. True, our perspective taking won’t be perfect, but does it have to be? As the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit recently wrote: “Though we could not possibly be the horse we are whipping, or the trapped and starved animal whose fur we are wearing, we can imagine such things well enough for moral purposes.”

Morality is most objective and compelling when justice and empathy align. That is, the moral prescription to act is strongest when victims are both wronged and harmed. Such is the case not only in animal abuse but also in genocide, murder, rape, slavery, child labor, and female genital mutilation (despite its continued practice and endorsement in some cultures). Empathy and justice have a deep partnership. Ideally, the partnership is mutual: perspective taking serves justice (would victimizers in their right mind wish to trade places with their victims?), just as justice serves empathy (does not justice seek the right balance of care?).

But is empathy always a worthy partner? We understand why Bloom wants to banish empathy (except as a diffuse compassion or mere spark) from morality. We have long been concerned with empathy’s limitations. Bloom is right to point out how narrow and parochial empathy can be. A nation’s attention is riveted to the domestic story of a baby trapped in a deep well or a teenager’s disappearance amid signs of foul play; meanwhile, an attempted genocide, the murders of millions in Rwanda or Darfur, is scarcely noticed. Hoffman decades ago called this limitation a bias, a selective attention to the salient and intense distress cues of the immediately “here and now” and “familiar/similar” suffering victim.

Yet we do care about the murder of millions as well, as Daryl Cameron and colleagues recently argued. Hoffman called that limitation “empathic over-arousal.” When Scott Seider evaluated a well-intentioned humanitarian course at a high school, he was surprised to find that the students were less motivated than before the course to do something about the massive suffering. One reason, he concluded, was that the students felt overwhelmed and paralyzed by the size and scope of the problems. They withdrew in a way that Hoffman calls “egoistic drift.” Also, over time we can habituate to suffering (perhaps that’s why many city dwellers just pass by the homeless among them on the streets).

Empathy’s limitations represent a flaw, but not a fatal one. In a way, bias and over-arousal preserve empathy (and society) more than destroy it. After all, if individuals were always empathizing with and trying to help everyone, society might quickly come to a halt. It’s also worth noting that, in relationships in which empathy, love, or role-demands and commitments make one feel compelled to help (for example, a health care professional), over-arousal may intensify rather than destroy one’s focus on helping the victim.

Still, empathy’s limitations generally need correction if empathy is to be a worthy partner to justice. “Stepping back” refers not only to applying fairness, but also to reducing empathic over-arousal. To combat the problem of compassion fatigue, a health care professional may need occasionally to gain some distance by thinking or looking at something distracting or soothing, or thinking ahead to a planned interlude of rest and recreation. Students in a humanitarian aid course need to be given hope that the massive problems can be shrunk, that they can make a difference.

To correct for empathy’s parochial biases, they can be recruited in the service of helping strangers; one can imagine a stranger as part of one’s family or circle of loved ones. It can happen spontaneously; a man chased down and captured a culprit who had pushed an elderly woman onto subway tracks “because that could have been my mom, that could have been a friend of mine.” Gibbs has incorporated such perspective-taking techniques in his and colleagues’ cognitive behavioral work with offenders. To Bloom’s proscription against thinking “of all humanity as a family,” we ask, why not?

Empathic morality alone may not be enough; we emphasize that empathy and justice are co-primary or mutual. If justice serves empathy, the reverse is certainly also true. Empathy’s limitations are minimized when empathy is embedded in principles of justice. Accordingly, morality becomes more stable, less dependent on variations in the intensity and salience of distress cues from victims, less vulnerable to empathic over-arousal (and under-arousal). It’s true that the trapped baby in the well shouldn’t receive disproportionate attention as millions elsewhere are murdered. Still, let’s not throw out the empathic baby with the limitation bathwater. Indeed, empathy’s limitations can be corrected, in part by justice. The limitations do not warrant a denial of empathy’s moral importance, a banishment of empathy from morality, or a disenfranchisement of empathy’s partnership with justice. We should try even harder to take others’ perspectives, to seek a balance of care. Hillary has a point.

Featured image: Photo by Eutah Mizushima. CC0 via Unsplash.

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