Empathy is a vicarious emotion of feeling what one believes another person feels. Empathy is distinct from “concern”, which is caring about the welfare of others. Concern is associated with altruism - wanting to help. Empathy is not a prerequisite for concern, but empathy and concern often go together. This is not necessarily a good thing.
One problem with empathy is its narrow focus on another’s experience, which can undermine moral reasoning. Sometimes one has to cool the embers of empathy to do the right thing. For instance, in moral dilemma thought experiments where lab subjects have to choose between saving one person now or five people later, subjects instructed to imagine the mental state of that one person are more likely to save him and sacrifice the five others. Because they felt his pain and not theirs.
Empathy is also associated with ingroup bias and outgroup antagonism. One is more likely to feel the joys and sorrows of some people more than others, especially if they’re the same ethnicity. Evidence of such bias abounds in the social psychology literature. For instance, research participants in India perceived South Asian faces as being “more alive, more able to plan and feel pain, and more likely to have a mind than Caucasian faces” while Caucasian participants in the UK felt, well, just the opposite (Krumhuber et al, 2015). And ingroup empathy is often accompanied by outgroup counter-empathy - a tendency to dismiss or even feel pleasure in the pain of economic or political competitors or simply people of the wrong ethnicity, nationality or religion.
So empathy is partial - a “special concern for a particular person or persons or for a particular group” (Batson & Powell, 2003). However, this partiality goes against moral principles necessary for wise governance: increasing the net social welfare and treating all people equally (Lamm & Majdandžić, 2015). The dark side of empathy is its tendency to divide people into Us and Them. Empathy helps some victims and creates others.
Feeling empathy does not make one a better person. Still, it’s a nice emotion and I’m all for it, as long as it knows its place.
pp. 463-484). Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc. Chiao, J. Y. and V. A. Mathur (2010). "Intergroup Empathy: How Does Race Affect Empathic Neural Responses?" Current Biology 20(11): R478-R480. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2010.04.001
Gleichgerrcht E, Young L (2013) Low Levels of Empathic Concern Predict Utilitarian Moral Judgment. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60418. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0060418
Prinz, J. (2011a). Against empathy. The SouthernJournal of Philosophy, 49, 214–233. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.2041-6962.2011.00069.
Helion, C. and K. N. Ochsner (2018). "The Role of Emotion Regulation in Moral Judgment." Neuroethics 11(3): 297-308. DOI: 10.1007/s12152-016-9261-z
Jordan, M. R., Amir, D., & Bloom, P. (2016). Are empathy and concern psychologically distinct? Emotion, 16(8), 1107-1116. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000228
Krumhuber EG, Swiderska A, Tsankova E, Kamble SV, Kappas A (2015) Real or Artificial? Intergroup Biases in Mind Perception in a Cross-Cultural Perspective. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0137840. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0137840
Lamm, C., C. D. Batson, et al. (2007). "The Neural Substrate of Human Empathy: Effects of Perspective-taking and Cognitive Appraisal." Journal of cognitive neuroscience 19(1): 42-58. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn.2007.19.1.42
Lamm, C. and J. Majdandžić (2015). "The role of shared neural activations, mirror neurons, and morality in empathy – A critical comment." Neuroscience Research 90: 15-24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neures.2014.10.008
Vanman, E. J. (2016). "The role of empathy in intergroup relations." Current Opinion in Psychology 11: 59-63. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.06.007