Monday, March 20, 2017

Empathy's Failure As Policy

Empathy's Unintended Consequences

When you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, then-senator Barack Obama told a standing-room-only crowd in 2006 at Xavier University's commencement, whether they are close friends or distant strangers—it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help. Empathy has become, in many precincts of 21st-century America, both the preferred tool for moral reasoning and a paramount value in its own right. But in this well-reasoned tract, Paul Bloom punctures empathy's seeming invulnerability by outlining its serious flaws, arguing instead for the use of compassionate but rational judgment in reaching ethical decisions.

Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, begins by defining empathy, with most contemporary psychologists and philosophers, as the act of feeling what you believe other people feel—experiencing what they experience. He also explores the nature of empathy, including its roots in the human brain—specifically, the cingulate cortex and anterior insula. Because empathic reactions to the experiences of others trigger the same gray matter as if you yourself underwent that experience, claiming  'I feel your pain' isn't just a gooey metaphor: it can be made neurologically literal.

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