Over the last few days, a lot of people have asked me about David Brooks’ Friday op-ed column in The New York Times on the “limits of empathy.” In it, Brooks argues that empathy is a “sideshow” to moral action. Considering the glut of recent books on empathy—such as Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy and Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization—Brooks writes that empathy “has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them.”
Empathy, in other words, is little more than a fad.
Instead, says Brooks, moral action stems not from empathy but from a “sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code.”
There’s some truth to this. Research has not proven that empathy guarantees altruism. Sometimes, research suggests, feeling empathy toward someone who’s suffering may actually inhibit action: You may be so overwhelmed by the emotional response that you want to tune it out or ignore it, lest you really start to suffer yourself. While empathy for another’s suffering may motivate some to take compassionate action, it could motivate others to run away from suffering as quickly as they can.
Plus, as Brooks notes, “empathy often leads people astray.” J.D. Trout makes this point convincingly in his Greater Good essay “More than a Feeling,” where he explains that empathy focuses our attention—and our wallets—on problems that hit us on a gut level, making us more inclined to respond to “the local misfortune, the present worry, and the psychologically salient, tragic individual.” One study found that people are more likely to donate money to an anti-hunger charity when it only tells the story of a single starving girl in Africa than when it features statistics on starvation in Africa—even when those statistics are combined with the girl’s story.
But Brooks is misguided, misinformed, or being needlessly provocative to discount or disparage empathy altogether. A considerable amount of research suggests empathy is an important ingredient to moral action, if not the only ingredient.
Studies have found that kids with more empathy are less likely to bully. One recent study shows that inducing empathy in white people reduces their feelings of prejudice toward African Americans and encourages more positive interracial interactions. And a seminal study by Samuel and Pearl Oliner looked for commonalities among people who had rescued Jews during the Holocaust; the Oliners found that the rescuers were deeply empathic—from a young age, they were encouraged by their parents to take other people’s perspectives.
In fact, in a review of decades of research on altruism, psychologist Daniel Batson, who has studied the topic himself for 40 years, writes in the Handbook of Positive Psychology that “considerable evidence supports the idea that feeling empathy for a person in need leads to increased helping of that person.”
Yes, in general, studies have shown that empathy doesn’t always lead to altruism—a lot can happen between the moment we empathize with someone and the decision to come to their aid—and that people sometimes help others without feeling empathy for them. There is certainly a mix of psychological and social factors that can motivate altruism.
But empathy is often a vital first step, not a misstep. Research clearly suggests that when we identify with someone, when we see the world through their eyes, we’re more likely to treat them with kindness—perhaps because they seem more human and their needs feel more real to us.
Given that he seems to follow the science, I’m not sure why Brooks chose to come down so hard against empathy. He can have a reactionary streak, to be sure, and this seems like an attempt to reject the growing interest in (touchy-feely) empathy in favor of good ole fashioned moral absolutes—a firm moral “code.”
But don’t members of al Qaeda have exactly the kind of code Brooks extols? What they don’t seem to have is empathy for their victims.
Perhaps, as Brooks suggests, empathy without a moral code can be futile. But a code without empathy is dangerous.