Against Empathy

This piece was written by Austin Henshaw.

Arguing against empathy? What type of person does that besides a literal psychopath? My main argument in this piece isn’t that we shouldn’t be compassionate towards others or that we should try to completely shut our emotions down entirely –  far from it. I will however argue that the misapplication of empathy, especially when it comes to policy decisions, can lead to potential negative outcomes in the long-term, while also justifying heinous actions which ultimately contribute to an increase in human suffering.

In discussing empathy, I want to make a distinction between “emotional” and “cognitive” empathy, although the vernacular usage of empathy primarily relies on the “emotional” definition. Focusing exclusively on “emotional empathy” can ignore statistical consequences while favoring specific individuals. Take an example of a faulty vaccine in a batch of vaccines that causes a little girl to get incredibly sick, possibly even dying. Observing her suffering and listening to her family, one may be tempted to act immediately and stop this vaccine program, ignoring the statistical reality that more children will die without the availability of these vaccines, even if we will never see these children and can’t directly personally empathize with them.

In contrast, there is another type of empathy I’d like to bring up here, “cognitive empathy.” That is the ability to understand what is going on in another person’s head, what motivates them, and what causes them pain. This is not the same as “emotional empathy” where you literally feel the same emotions as that person, but cognitively understand their motivations. Given our current divisive political environment, this is actually a type of empathy I wouldn’t explicitly argue against, even if it doesn’t personally change your political decisions, understanding the personal reasons behind another’s political decisions can go a long way in working with that person or potentially changing their mind.

George Lakoff, author of The Political Mind, argues that “Behind every progressive policy lies a single moral value: empathy.” Research in the past has suggested that liberals do have a higher capacity for empathy than conservatives and libertarians, but it could also be argued people of different political affiliations invoke empathy in different ways. Whereas liberals are more likely to make appeals to empathy when arguing for increased minimum wage to help poor workers or for arguing in favor of affirmative action, conservatives are more likely to invoke it when it comes to criminal justice issues and national security.

One specific example I’ll bring up is in regards to torture, which has been argued as justifiable to protect national security, despite evidence to the contrary as to its (in)effectiveness. In light of torture reports being released in 2014, in which it was revealed several innocent people may have suffered through torture without proper due process, ex-Vice President Dick Cheney defended the United States record on torture, giving the example of “an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11.” This was not a logical appeal to security, but an emphatic argument citing the suffering of a single identifiable individual.

Another problem with empathy is empathy almost always allies with the censor. Calls for increased empathy are used when it comes to the proliferation of trigger warnings to protect students who might be upset by certain kinds of content, despite evidence trigger warnings may ultimately hurt the mental health of students. It has also been used in justifying policies which take away due process from students accused of sexual assault on campus, in this case the suffering of students who are unfortunately the victims of sexual assault being used to justify the clear civil liberties violations and increased numbers of innocent students being punished.

Indeed, suffering inflicted out of empathy for others and the pursuit of morality has been constant throughout history. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues “The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.”

When Hitler persecuted the Jews, Germans were motivated by his rhetoric that the Jews were responsible for Germany losing World War I and the economic crisis. While the United States was preparing to invade Iraq, airwaves were cluttered with examples of the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Baath party. If the United States is to transition into a more direct war with ISIS, no doubt images of beheadings and people being burned alive will be used to rally the American people in support. This isn’t to say I’m a pacifist against all military interventions, especially those where national security is at risk, but our empathy is easily exploited in tipping the scales far too much in favor of violent action, while ignoring the future suffering military action will cause.

In making policy decisions with far-reaching consequences, setting aside empathy and engaging in rational cost-benefit calculations will in most cases lead to more positive longer term consequences, even if there is suffering in the short term. While there is controversy as to the validity of this case, I do believe it illustrates the perfect representation of this idea. During World War II the British had deciphered the Enigma code and had knowledge of an impending German assault on Coventry. Had Churchill chosen to take measures to protect Coventry from the attack, Britain’s knowledge of the Enigma code would have been compromised. By making the agonizing decision to allow innocent people to die to retain a strategic military advantage, Britain had a better chance of winning the war and saving a greater number of lives. Various other examples can be found throughout military history.

Unfortunately calls for reason when it comes to public policy making often get dismissed as Western white male centric viewpoints, and people arguing this should check their privilege. Not only is this an example of postmodern ideology being used to dismiss logic and reason, it is an illustration of the bigotry of low expectations, implying that those who are not white or male would have problems with reason. Rational compassion will serve to have far greater outcomes for more people in the long run than policy decisions based off of empathy and wanting to mitigate short-term consequences.


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