05/20/2013 05:04 pm ET | Updated Jul 20, 2013

Don't Blame Empathy

In a recent New Yorker piece, Paul Bloom argues that empathy is the wrong stance for public morality, as in promoting public health, because it focuses our attention on the individuals we readily empathize with -- such as the baby stuck in a well -- and blinds us to the unmet needs of the many whose problems are harder to imagine. Mr. Bloom makes a number of valid points. But, as Michael Zakaras points out, Bloom seems to miss the cognitive aspects of empathy, and thus misses the crucial role that empathy must play in ethical decisions. Zakaras, though, goes too far in defending empathy as the basis of a coherent moral vision. Both authors ignore the bigger problem we face in policy decisions, which is that we seem to lack a capacity to bring our distinct moral perspectives -- empathy, justice, efficiency -- into one coherent view. This is a limitation of reason, not of empathy.

Let's start with some areas of agreement. Bloom is correct that empathy is not enough for making decisions that involve balancing the numbers. In fact, I'll go even further -- empathy isn't very good for assessing fairness even between two people. When a parent has to decide how to use scarce resources to meet the competing needs of her two beloved children, empathy alone usually won't provide the answer. She also needs to take into account fairness and effectiveness.

And I agree with Bloom that in many cases, empathy for the more-easily-imagined predicament can overshadow other morally important, but less emotionally-charged issues. The result: We will spend any amount on that one baby in the well and much less on vaccines for those as yet unaffected by disease or on halting climate change for the benefit of the unborn.

Bloom does acknowledge that empathy is important in our personal lives, where people, he writes, are subjects as well as objects. But then Bloom makes a crucial error: He treats public policy decisions as utterly distinct, so that only a bare minimum of empathy is needed to motivate people to apply their intellect to solve moral dilemmas. He seems to envision a policy-making process that fails to factor in subjective human needs. And that is where he gets into trouble.

Policymakers Need Empathy

People care about more than numbers. They care so much about subjective well-being that they are willing to trade years of life for improved quality of life. Cold reason is really not sufficient to assess anyone's quality of life. That evaluation requires a robust application of empathy. Physicians without adequate empathy regularly undertreat patient pain -- they often fail to even perceive it. In contrast, palliative care teams, who really are in the business of empathy, are acutely sensitive to patient pain. They can and do treat it, because they can and do see it.

Another example, relevant today: the psychological toll of chronic unemployment was invisible until empathic researchers documented that people find it more difficult to adapt to being unemployed than to many major physical disabilities. Until quite recently, major depression, which many people find intolerable, was largely invisible. It still is, in many circumstances -- our veterans are among the worst sufferers: Twenty-two commit suicide every day. They, and the rest of us, need empathetic policies that recognize the importance of employment, mental health and dignity to make life worth living.

Bloom emphasizes the utilitarian benefit of preventing potentially large-scale problems in advance, in lieu of rescuing the few in the present. But research shows that prevention efforts usually require motivating people to action. Empathy is crucial to mobilizing agency. Empathy also plays a critical role in inspiring trust in the teachers, public health workers, nurses or doctors who advocate for population health.

The Real Problem: The Lack of an Ethical Standpoint That Integrates Empathy, Justice and Efficiency

So while I fully agree with Bloom that empathy is not sufficient for morality (who ever said it was?), the real problem is that we have trouble integrating empathy with other morally important goals. But that is not because empathy is blinding. By the way, we also struggle to integrate justice and efficiency (Bloom blurs the two in his population examples), as policymakers well know. Perhaps fairness is not adequately sensitive to numbers. Perhaps efficiency (utilitarianism) is overly tied to numbers. There is no overarching moral theory that tells us how to balance fairness, efficiency and empathic concerns. At least, not yet.

In fact, Bloom widely overrates what "reasoning" can do for morality. Moral philosophers attempting to solve the problem of whether to save a few people now or to prevent harm to many later are stumped. The cause of their confusion is not empathy, the "people" in their thought experiments are stick figures. Rather it is the lack of intuition about how to adjudicate between most of our core moral concerns: fairness, efficiency, helping versus preventing harm.

In closing then, Bloom is too optimistic about detached reason and discounts the crucial role of empathy in grasping the subjective aspects of human needs. Still, he rightly reminds us that empathy alone is not enough to guide us to make moral judgments in public policy. I would add that empathy alone isn't enough for our private lives, either. A parent needs more than empathy to allocate resources well among beloved children; fairness and efficiency should also play a role. Yet absent empathy, the parent will miss important needs. And sometimes noticing another's needs empathically is in and of itself morally significant, even when those needs cannot be fully met.

For more by Jodi Halpern, click here.

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