We envision a future network with hundreds of millions of active endpoints.
My claim is actually the opposite: To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain.
Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. I will follow this convention here, but we should keep in mind that the two are distinct—they emerge from different brain processes; you can have a lot of one and a little of the other—and that most of the discussion of the moral implications of empathy focuses on its emotional side.
Some degree of emotional empathy is bred in the bone. This is not uniquely human: Empathy can occur automatically, even involuntarily. When you think like this—when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers—it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.
Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. In general, empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it is a force against selfishness and indifference. It is easy to see, then, how empathy can be a moral good, and it has many champions.
Most people see the benefits of empathy as too obvious to require justification. This is a mistake. Most people see the benefits of empathy as akin to the evils of racism: I think this is a mistake.
I have argued elsewhere that certain features of empathy make it a poor guide to social policy.
Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data.
If I look at the one, I will. In light of these features, our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside.
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Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction.
Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of vaccinating children and responding to climate change.
These acts impose costs on real people in the here and now for the sake of abstract future benefits, so tackling them may require overriding empathetic responses that favor the comfort and well being of individuals today.
We can rethink humanitarian aid and the criminal justice system, choosing to draw on a reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences.
But even if you accept this argument, there is a lot more to life than public policy. Consider our everyday interactions with our parents and children, with our partners and friends. Consider also certain special relationships, such as that between doctor and patient or therapist and client.
Empathy might not scale up to the policy level, but it seems an unalloyed good when it comes to these intimate relationships—the more the better. I used to believe this, but I am no longer sure.
Hannah is a psychotherapist who has a natural gift for tuning into how others are feeling. As soon as you walk into her living room, she is already reading your face, your gait, your posture.
Her intonation—even before you have taken off your coat—suggests an invitation to confide, to disclose, to share. Hannah is not doing this because it is her job to do so. She is like this with her clients, her friends, and even people she has only just met.
She has an unstoppable drive to empathize. It is easy to see what Baron-Cohen finds so impressive here. Hannah sounds like a good therapist, and it seems as if she would also be a good mother to young children.
But consider what it must be like to be her. She also does not endorse a guiding principle based on compassion and kindness. Rather, Hannah is compelled by hyperarousal—her drive is unstoppable. Her experience is the opposite of selfishness but just as extreme.
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