Empathy Notes #3: Empathy versus rationality?

Recent cogent critiques of empathy promote rationality as its antidote.  But each of these powerful capacities has gifts and limitations.  We need to use them well together to address our current challenges and make a better world.

Several weeks ago my good friend Miki Kashtan sent me two articles  – “The Baby in the Well” by Paul Bloom and “The Case Against Empathy” by David Harris-Gershon – that critically compare empathy with reason.

These two essays maintain that empathy causes us to focus on the narrow needs of visibly suffering individuals – especially those who are like us or whom we know and love. This focus distracts us from broader or invisible suffering – and from the systemic causes of suffering – for which changes in policy, systems, culture, etc., are called for rather than our personal kindness and help. Therefore, suggest the essayists Paul Bloom and David Harris-Gershon, reason is a more dependable guide to our moral responses than empathy.

Bloom calls empathy “parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate”. Because of empathy’s “identifiable victim effect”, he maintains, “the story of [a missing teenager] took up far more television time than the concurrent genocide in Darfur.” His examples don’t stop there: “Each day, more than ten times the number of people who died in Hurricane Katrina die because of preventable diseases, and more than thirteen times as many perish from malnutrition… In the past three decades, there were some sixty mass shootings, causing about five hundred deaths; that is, about one-tenth of one per cent of the homicides in America” and yet, thanks to our empathy, we focus on the dramatic mass shootings rather than the more everyday murders.

Bloom quotes the economist Thomas Schelling about how thousands of people will send nickels and dimes to help “a six-year-old girl with brown hair [who needs] thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas” but they won’t support a sales tax without which hospital facilities will deteriorate, resulting in even more preventable deaths.


Reducing it all to real-life absurdity, Bloom tells us that “Newtown, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, was inundated with so much charity that it became a burden. More than eight hundred volunteers were recruited to deal with the gifts that were sent to the city—all of which kept arriving despite earnest pleas from Newtown officials that charity be directed elsewhere. A vast warehouse was crammed with plush toys the townspeople had no use for; millions of dollars rolled in to this relatively affluent community. We felt their pain; we wanted to help. Meanwhile—just to begin a very long list—almost twenty million American children go to bed hungry each night, and the federal food-stamp program is facing budget cuts of almost twenty per cent.”

To make his point that reason is needed but impeded, Bloom invites us into a thought experiment: “Imagine reading that two thousand people just died in an earthquake in a remote country, and then discovering that the actual number of deaths was twenty thousand. Do you now feel ten times worse? To the extent that we can recognize the numbers as significant, it’s because of reason, not empathy.” He then notes a further impediment generated by empathy: “Sensible policies often have benefits that are merely statistical but victims who have names and stories.” By focusing on the victims, we end up with bad policy that doesn’t give us the benefits.

In another reference to politics, both Bloom and Harris-Gershon point to what they call “the politics of empathy in which each side vies for an empathetic response. While progressives… point to the children at Sandy Hook as clear evidence for our need to tightly regulate firearms, conservatives… point to those helpless, unarmed victims. And America empathizes.” This empathy-driven dynamic does not help America make up its collective mind on a moral issue, but rather confuses us and sets us against each other.


Harris-Gershon notes “this beautiful human characteristic – beneficial when the world is small, say a family or a village – has become a liability and, in some cases, a destructive force in our world. In some ways, empathy is killing us.” He raises the issue of climate change – on which I share some of his concerns, but fear he goes too far when he asserts that “We cannot possibly feel emotionally the lives of those who do not yet exist, nor can we emotionally absorb the staggering numbers of those who will suffer and perish as a result of climate change.” He may not experience powerful emotional feelings for those unseen, unborn people, but such empathic feelings are a driving force in my own psyche. However, I can well imagine that many or even most people have a hard time stretching their empathy in that direction or having such an overwhelming gut impact from the personally felt suffering of future generations.

Harris-Gershon concludes with this: “if we are to survive as a society, if our planet is to survive, we are going to somehow have to become smart enough to rely on reason, and not empathy, to make our most important decisions. Yes, we will always be moral. And empathy will always, as an emotion, focus our attention on the personal stories we encounter. As it should. But our survival depends, paradoxically, on our ability to overcome our emotionally-informed morality. On our ability to look at climate change statistics and say, ‘Yes, I must act. Immediately.’”

Bloom agrees: “If a planet of billions is to survive… we’ll need to take into consideration the welfare of people not yet harmed—and, even more, of people not yet born. They have no names, faces, or stories to grip our conscience or stir our fellow-feeling. Their prospects call, rather, for deliberation and calculation. Our hearts will always go out to the baby in the well; it’s a measure of our humanity. But empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.”


Obviously Bloom and Harris-Gershon are making excellent points – especially that we need to expand beyond the narrow focus of most empathy. But there is a serious fallacy in their reasoning: they pose empathy and reason as opposed sides in a dichotomy. They have framed the issue as reason, logic, and statistics VERSUS emotion, empathy, and compassion.

While acknowledging the value of empathy, both essayists argue that reason is far superior for dealing with today’s challenges. However, their arguments narrowly focus on the shortcomings of empathy, neglecting the considerable shortcomings of rationality. Rationality has a strong tendency to be neatly reductionist and cleverly self-serving. It is prone to mistaking its maps for the territories they describe. It too often asserts that it operates objectively, independent of values and biases, when closer examination reveals it to be rife with values and assumptions that just happen to be invisible to its supposedly detached practitioners. Reason also tends to serve our need for rationalizations more often than our need for wisdom.

This is of course not to say that empathy is superior to reason. The truth – the truth that we most need to grasp – is that BOTH reason and empathy can be used in inadequate or destructive ways, and that BOTH reason and empathy can be used in wholesome, life-serving ways. They can also serve to ameliorate each other’s worst shortcomings.


So we need to frame our problem here not in terms of how inferior one of these powerful cognitive modes is compared to the other, but in terms of their need for balance, for integral wholeness and interactivity, for supporting each other and functioning in mutually enhancing ways to generate the deeper, richer wisdom we need.


To represent this, I imagine a yin-yang symbol (Taijitu) in which reason is the white “fish” and empathy is the black “fish” (or vice versa). Note that in that image empathy and reason move or dance together, intimately related to each other. In our healthiest interactions with the world, we find reason at the heart of our empathy and empathy at the heart of our reason. THAT’S the kind of consciousness – and world – we need and want. We need empathy to guide our reasoning, and reason to guide our empathy.

Both our reason and our empathy have evolved in conditions very unlike what we have today. So to meet today’s challenges we need both reason and empathy to expand, to evolve, to stretch so that they embrace – with each other’s help – more of reality, more of the whole of life.

That evolution is already happening. Historically we find empathy embracing more of the whole through progressive movements for the rights of slaves, women, gays, animals, nature, etc. In another thread of history, we find reason embracing more of the whole through science breaking out of its separate silos and mechanistic assumptions into interdisciplinary investigations and holistic fields like ecology, nonlinear systems, complexity and chaos theories, quantum uncertainty, etc. And we find the two threads merging in the work of people like Buddhist systems thinker Joanna Macy and spiritually inspired evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme, and in movements like the Pachamama Alliance and Permaculture, which weave indigenous insights with scientific understandings of our global and local situations to guide wiser forms of caring.

We still don’t know whether this evolutionary process will happen fast enough to counter the potentially terminal dynamics of the empathy-vs-reason split. But that evolution is unfolding rapidly and offers tremendous hope. I’ll explore it further in my next post in this series.

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