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The Case Against the Case Against Empathy

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"Empathy," writes Paul Bloom in The New Yorker this week, "is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We're often at our best when we're smart enough not to rely on it." We'd be better off were we to supplant our flawed empathetic sensibilities with reason (that most flawless of human capacities).

His central argument is a utilitarian one: empathy is an often irrational emotional response that plays favorites, he says. It is thus a poor mechanism for solving real problems and making tough choices -- whether distributing international aid or making sacrifices today so that we don't warm our planet to oblivion tomorrow. It's empathy, he suggests, that explains why we are captivated by individual stories and numb to statistics -- the reason we were riveted for months by the missing teenager Natalee Holloway, while thousands were being slaughtered each day in Darfur; why, in the words of Ronald Reagan, "everybody in America became godmothers and godfathers" to Jessica McClure, the 18-month-old who famously fell into a well. In short, according to Bloom, it's empathy that is to blame for the capricious nature of our moral concern.

His conclusion? Empathy is a bad moral guide: "A reasoned, even counter-empathetic analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences is a better guide to planning for the future than the gut wrench of empathy." Instead he appeals to our reasoning selves, calling for deliberation and calculation -- the mind over the heart - and ends his piece with "[E]mpathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future."

If you accept his characterization of empathy as an exclusively emotional/reactive response to suffering, it's easy to agree. What he's describing, however, sounds a lot more like sympathy than empathy. Mr. Bloom misses a critical point: empathy is as much a cognitive process as it is an emotional and physiological one. Nearly all scholars and researchers agree on this (though they disagree on the exact balance). What does cognitive empathy mean? It's akin to perspective taking -- to imagining why you might have different preferences and make different decisions than I would. This kind of perspective taking requires careful thought, self-awareness, and real listening. It is the opposite of an uninformed gut reaction.

A compelling case can be made that we need more empathy -- not less -- in everything from our personal relationships to our politics. We live in an age of unprecedented global connectivity and rapid change, and empathy can help us navigate that world smartly and morally as we collide with others. In addition to getting along better, empathy will help us to negotiate more effectively, resolve conflicts more quickly, and work more collaboratively with our colleagues.

In our efforts to solve difficult social problems in particular, we rely too heavily on reason and numbers and econometrics, and not often enough on empathy. And again, by empathy, I don't just mean our emotions, and I certainly don't mean feeling sorry -- that's sympathy. I mean the ability to truly understand the perspective of others, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. This, I hope, is the empathy President Obama refers to in his letter to Karina Encarnacion.

Indeed, a great deal of our international development efforts, as well as the now-trendy philanthrocapitalism, have failed precisely because we looked at numbers and didn't listen to people. Because we designed great mobile apps without bothering to see if women in India would actually use them. Because we don't often enough approach problems with humility and we seldom solve them by unlocking agency in others.

Empathy, when properly defined and conceived of, is vital and should not be so quickly dismissed. Far from an inhibitor to reason, it is a powerful complement to reason. With it, we are less selfish and more selfless, and we can begin to see the world through each other's eyes. It is a gift that humans are uniquely capable of.

But to truly empathize is not easy. In this sense Bloom is right: we're more likely to do so with those who look and think like we do. So rather than dismiss empathy, why not commit ourselves to practicing it more deliberately and more often, and expanding our spheres of empathy to those who are not just different but who challenge some of our very own moral foundations?

Michael Zakaras is a writer and strategist who specializes in social entrepreneurship and public policy. He works for Ashoka and is the communications director for their newest initiative -- Start Empathy -- that seeks to help parents and educators more effectively cultivate empathy in young people. You can learn more at www.startempathy.org