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Empathy: Too Little, or Too Much?


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We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. But new research makes the case that some of the worst decisions made by individuals and nations are too often motivated by honest, yet misplaced, emotions, and specifically empathy. Do we have too little empathy? Or too much?

Published in: Spiritual
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Empathy: Too Little, or Too Much?

  1. 1. What is empathy?  Sympathy – feeling for someone. Your emotional reaction to their feeling  Compassion – concern for the misfortune or suffering of others  The ability to understand and experience another person’s feelings
  2. 2. Why is empathy good?  Empathy makes us care about other people because their pain and joy become our pain and joy.
  3. 3. Empathy in scripture  Islam Qur’an: Chapter 9, Verse 128 – There has certainly come to you a Messenger from among yourselves. Grievous to him is what you suffer.
  4. 4. Empathy in scripture  Judaism Exodus 23:9 – You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. [Another translation “you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens.”]
  5. 5. Empathy in scripture  Christianity - Romans 12:15 – Paul said we should “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” - 1 Corinthians 12:26 – Paul says that “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
  6. 6. Empathy in scripture  John 11: 33-35 “When Jesus saw Lazarus’ sister, Mary, weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. . . (35) “Jesus wept.”
  7. 7. Empathy in scripture  Buddhism - “Sentimental compassion” (empathy) - “Great compassion” - love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Teaching: “Sentimental compassion (empathy) is to be avoided, as it exhausts you. Whereas great compassion, which is more distanced and reserved, and can be sustained indefinitely.”
  8. 8. How could empathy be bad?
  9. 9. 1) Empathy reflects our prejudices  Sandy Hook Elementary School (2012) ◦ 21 kids and 6 adults killed
  10. 10. 1) Empathy reflects our prejudices  MRI - electric shock study
  11. 11. 2) Empathy focuses us on whoever is in front of us and visible  Quality-Life Foundation test ◦ High empathy group vs. low empathy group
  12. 12. 3) Empathy favors the one over the many
  13. 13. 4) Empathy can overwhelm us and prevent us from doing good  Husband and wife rescue team  Buddhist experiment
  14. 14. 5) Empathy drives short term thinking with long-term consequences  Child beggars in India  Cambodian orphanages  War lords in Africa
  15. 15. How these problems creep into our public policy  Victim statements during the sentencing phase ◦ How much they cry, same skin color  War experiment ◦ Measured empathy ◦ Response to atrocity (0 = nothing, 2 = economic, 4 = air strikes, 6 = full-scale invasion)  Foreign Aid ◦ Often puts local farmers and markets out of business
  16. 16. Action Items  Listen to your head, not your heart when making moral, charity, fairness, and justice decisions  Visit – “Rather than just doing what feels right, we use evidence and careful analysis to find the very best causes to work on.”  Use – monitor the efficacy of charities to determine which ones make the most difference
  17. 17. Discussion Questions 1. Do you find any of the arguments against empathy compelling? Which ones and why? 2. Describe a recent decision that you made out of empathy that you might want to rethink. 3. What are some parts of your life that you think would be better if you were more empathetic? 4. What are some strategies you could use to keep yourself from making poor decisions based on empathetic appeals?
  18. 18. Closing Quote “Perhaps empathy is like milk. Adults don’t need milk; we do fine without it. But babies need milk to grow. [Perhaps empathy is] the developmental core of morality. . . but ultimately we develop caring without having to step into other people’s shoes.” -- Paul Bloom