The case for empathy


People mean different things by empathy. Some people use the term as a catch-all term for everything good—compassion, love, morality, wanting to make the world a better place, and so on. […] Others use it in a narrower sense to describe what people think and the understanding of what people think and feel, sometimes known as “cognitive empathy.” […] The sense of empathy that I’m concerned about is the capacity to put yourself in the shoes of other people and feel what they feel. This is actually the same as what the scholars of the 18th century described as “sympathy.”

Paul Bloom at the Carnegie Council, 2016

When I read the excerpt from The Minimalists’ new book, where they list empathy as one of the overrated virtues. I was confused, to say the least. But looking at the different meanings of empathy explained by Paul Bloom as referenced in the essay, I was reassured that empathy is still a virtue to pursue when explained in the right and rational context.

The way I see it is that first comes understanding, the capability to agree that someone is thinking differently. Without actually having to agree with their point of view. What follows is (cognitive) empathy, so you can understand why their thinking is different. Without the need to actually feel what they are feeling. To be followed by (rational) compassion. The validation of discomfort by someone else’s misfortune. Again, without actually having to feel their pain.

One of the reasons empathy is a dangerous virtue to use as a moral compass is that it is biased and enumerated. For example, you sympathize more with people who look like you, because it is obviously easier to understand. And we focus more on an individual or smaller group than the bigger picture. And in these imperfections, empathy can be harmful to other people. As a practical example, we can look a the vaccines of COVID-19. Where a problem with blood clots almost shut down vaccination programs around the world. Eventually, it was said that the disadvantages and risks did not outweigh the advantages. So we feel with the few people who suffer from the negative and deadly effects more than the large group of people we saved by vaccinating them.

So why am I still including empathy as one of the 17 lifestyle goals? Because I believe there is still an empathy deficit in our society. The one that helps us understand that lives are different and that we need to look further than our own. To frame it in Paul Bloom’s theory, I see a lack of cognitive empathy or as he describes it, rational compassion.

I would argue that we lose our empathic ability when we get older. And that children are better at learning about the variety and diversity life holds. Children are less biased by race, age, or gender. They still have to learn about religion and politics. They are more open to learning from the facts and opinions we present them. So we need to take some lessons from them. And open our minds again to the differences between each other.

Let empathy help you go further than just agreeing that opinions matter, and let it give you a rational confirmation of the reason for that opinion without judging or glorifying it.

#compassion #covid19 #empathy #goals #minimalism #slgs #understanding