You can always tell when a new idea is becoming popular – people start critiquing it. That’s certainly the case when it comes to empathy, a concept that is getting more public attention today than at any point in its history (the frequency of Google searches for the word ‘empathy’ has more than doubled in the past decade).
Amongst the critics is the psychologist Paul Bloom, who in a recent piece in the New Yorker argued that the ‘gut wrench of empathy’ is a flawed basis for morality and an ineffective force for political change. Amongst his arguments is that empathy doesn’t work very well across distance (we empathise more with people close to us than far away strangers) and that it’s partial (we more easily step into the shoes of people who are like us than unlike us).
His conclusion is that we should ditch empathy and rely instead on reason and rights to create a more ethical, just and democratic world. Reason, the argument goes, is rational and objective, whereas empathy is emotional and subjective, and can ‘pull us in the wrong direction’. Alongside Bloom other empathy critics wading into the debate include the philosopher Jesse Prinz, the political commentator David Brooks, psychologist Steven Pinker, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
In a new 15 minute video, Does Empathy Make or Break Democracy?, I take on the critics and make the case not only that their arguments are flawed but that empathy is a fundamental ingredient for creating the very culture of democracy, human rights and social justice that they seek.
Most of their arguments are based on a false dichotomy between empathy and reason. It simply isn’t the case that it’s a choice of one or the other. Look at the historical evidence and we see empathy and reason working together, hand in hand. The way it generally happens is this: empathy opens the door of our moral concern for neglected or marginalised social groups, and then rights and laws wedge that door open. That’s the story of the campaigns against slavery in the eighteenth century, of the struggle for political rights and equality in the American and French Revolutions, and of the fight for the rights of women, disabled people, indigenous rights and gay rights over the past 100 years. The reason why we believe all people should be treated equally and why we enshrine this in laws and rights is because empathy has made us care about the plight of strangers outside our immediate communities, and has expanded our moral universe. As the cognitive linguist George Lakoff puts it:
‘Empathy is at the heart of real rationality, because it goes to the heart of our values, which are the basis of our sense of justice. Empathy is the reason that we have the principles of freedom and fairness, which are necessary components of justice.’
It’s time to set the record straight and harness the power of empathy to shift the contours of the social and political landscape.
Roman Krznaric’s new book Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution, published by Random House, is out now.
Come along to Roman’s talk on Empathy for Action for Happiness at London’s Conway Hall on Wednesday May 14.