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.


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