Is Empathy Helping?

By Aberdeen McEvers

Empathy, or the ability “walk in someone else’s shoes”, has long been regarded as an important form of human connection and a useful tool for advocating for humanitarian and human rights causes. Famously, President Obama called empathy “the biggest deficit we have in our society” and altruistic organizations like the Red Cross and the UNHCR use empathy to create support for important causes around the world. However, recent debates have called into question whether empathy is as inherently good as it is portrayed. Some critics have pointed to the negative effects empathy can have to argue that advocates should move towards logic-based campaigns to generate support for their cause.

Negative effects of empathy

A common critique is that empathy can have a “spotlight effect.” Psychologically, humans cannot empathize with all the millions of people suffering every day. As a result, our empathy tends to shine a spotlight on a single event or crisis. Oftentimes, media bias, inherent prejudices and political agendas determine which issues get the spotlight and the suffering of other, potentially more vulnerable groups is unaddressed. This is demonstrated by the attention given to the Rohingya, who have been suffering horrible abuses for decades but have only recently been the subject of international discourse.

Other critics worry about the biased nature of empathy. Statistically, humans tend to empathize more with people they relate to. This can perhaps partially explain NATO’s intervention in Kosovo and the horrific lack of international response to the genocide in Rwanda until it was too late. The constituents of the Western decision-making countries were informed by racial and cultural prejudices and therefore more easily related themselves to the suffering of Kosovars than they did to the suffering of Tutsis. This example demonstrates how empathy is not immune to racial and cultural bias.

Still others have pointed out that throughout history empathy has been used to motivate horrific actions towards “outgroups.” Genocidal leaders often utilize empathy to motivate citizens to support their cause. In the US, empathetic narratives were manipulated to generate support for the war in Iraq and islamophobic discourse.

The use of empathy as a tool by humanitarian organizations has also attracted criticism, with some arguing that it exploits and fetishizes others’ suffering. This can cause survivors of trauma to be represented as one-dimensional victims and make the violence enacted against them take center stage. The exploitative nature of empathy in advocacy campaigns can even be seen in the abolitionist movement, where photographs of former slaves’ mutilated bodies were distributed amongst white abolitionist to generate support for the cause. However, the process of acquiring and distributing these photographs often subjected former slaves to further objectification and dehumanization.

Finally, many are concerned with the emotional aspect of empathy, arguing that empathy encourages people to do things that make them feel better emotionally rather than to do things that actually help. This can explain, for instance, efforts to send Christmas presents to non-Christian nations suffering from famine rather than organizing campaigns to protest inequitable and oppressive economic policies. Buying toys for an imagined child feels better than protesting and writing letters to a congressperson and the philanthropist receives a sense of immediate gratification that long-term political campaigning cannot offer.

What does this mean for empathy?

While all of these critiques of empathy are valid, they are not specific to empathy itself. Alternatives to empathy, like logic, are no less subjective or safe from misuse. Logic can be used to argue for the utilitarian based distribution of goods that leave small, “lost cause” groups without support or resources. Logic is also not immune to bias, and throughout history ethnocentric rationales and statistical reasoning has been used to invalidate and dominate vulnerable populations around the world. For example, logic has often been used to argue for the necessity of torture tactics. Logic is also culturally-informed. Logical decisions are based on the the values we hold, which are shaped by the cultural values we are taught from birth. This means that what might seem logical to one group is not necessarily the rational choice for another and not recognizing this can cause ineffective or even harmful aid.

This is where empathy comes in. Empathy allows us to connect with our fellow humans in a way that logic cannot. Through this emotional connection, we can see things that our culturally-constructed logic would immediately dismiss. Empathy makes us pay attention to causes that would be “illogical” to intervene in or suffering that is deemed a rational necessity (as slavery once was). In addition, empathy can help to addresses concerns about ethnocentric aid-giving. By allowing ourselves to empathize with each other we can feel when something is “off” and be more aware of things that are not yet visible, even when a decision or action seems logically sound. For example, moments of interpersonal empathy can even help to address the exploitation of victims to generate mass outrage at human rights abuses.  This practice is supported by logical explanation, reasoning that a small amount of exploitation to generate support for an important cause is a worthy succession. Had the abolitionist put themselves in the shoes of the former slaves they put on display, they may have recognized how traumatic and dehumanizing this experience truly was.

As critics have illustrated, there are significant problems with empathy. However, there are significant problems with most methods of human decision-making. Throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak, only deprives us of all of the benefits empathy has and leaves us with equally-flawed alternatives. Being aware of the problems empathy can create is important because it allows us to think critically about our empathetically-motivated actions. By utilizing critical thinking and a mixture of rationality, compassion and empathic response we can help to circumvent the pitfalls of all of these different decision-making tools in a continuous effort to make better and more effective decisions to address suffering around the world.