“The word “empathy”—a rendering of the German Einfühlung, “feeling into”—is only a century old, but people have been interested for a long time in the moral implications of feeling our way into the lives of others. In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), Adam Smith observed that sensory experience alone could not spur us toward sympathetic engagement with others: “Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers.” For Smith, what made us moral beings was the imaginative capacity to “place ourselves in his situation … and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.”
In this sense, empathy is an instinctive mirroring of others’ experience—James Bond gets his testicles mashed in “Casino Royale,” and male moviegoers grimace and cross their legs. Smith talks of how “persons of delicate fibres” who notice a beggar’s sores and ulcers “are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation in the correspondent part of their own bodies.” There is now widespread support, in the social sciences, for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis.” Batson has found that simply instructing his subjects to take another’s perspective made them more caring and more likely to help.
Empathy research is thriving these days, as cognitive neuroscience undergoes what some call an “affective revolution.” …
This interest isn’t just theoretical. If we can figure out how empathy works, we might be able to produce more of it. Some individuals staunch their empathy through the deliberate endorsement of political or religious ideologies that promote cruelty toward their adversaries, while others are deficient because of bad genes, abusive parenting, brutal experience, or the usual unhappy goulash of all of the above. At an extreme lie the one per cent or so of people who are clinically described as psychopaths. A standard checklist for the condition includes “callousness; lack of empathy”; many other distinguishing psychopathic traits, like lack of guilt and pathological lying, surely stem from this fundamental deficit. Some blame the empathy-deficient for much of the suffering in the world. In “The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty” (Basic), Simon Baron-Cohen goes so far as to equate evil with “empathy erosion.” …
Two other recent books, “The Empathic Civilization” (Penguin), by Jeremy Rifkin, and “Humanity on a Tightrope” (Rowman & Littlefield), by Paul R. Ehrlich and Robert E. Ornstein, make the powerful argument that empathy has been the main driver of human progress, and that we need more of it if our species is to survive. Ehrlich and Ornstein want us “to emotionally join a global family.” Rifkin calls for us to make the leap to “global empathic consciousness.” He sees this as the last best hope for saving the world from environmental destruction, and concludes with the plaintive question “Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avoid planetary collapse?” These are sophisticated books, which provide extensive and accessible reviews of the scholarly literature on empathy. And, as befits the spirit of the times, they enthusiastically champion an increase in empathy as a cure for humanity’s ills.
This enthusiasm may be misplaced, however. Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.”
The Case Against Empathy | The New Yorker