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The Case Against Empathy

Last month’s school shooting in Florida saw, yet again, another round of calls for empathy. Take a walk through the mainstream media and, with the right sorts of questions, you will, sooner or later, stumble upon a gaping discord at the heart of public discourse: some think that we, the western world as a whole or at least the United States, are suffering from a profound lack of empathy in our politics; others think that this wishy-washy, SJW-inspired empathy fad has taken our politics too far afield. Usually, the Left calls for more empathy, the Right for less. Opinion piece after opinion piece make conflicting, often diametrically opposite, claims about the place empathy should occupy in the grand scheme of the political domain.

I find myself squarely on the against-empathy side of this debate. For empathy does not generate political division only when we theorize about it; it also generates division when it is felt, exercised. There is something far more nefarious about it, which can often slip unnoticed and which can bring about, and indeed does seem to have brought about, profound introversions among the denizens of many western democracies.

To be clear, and to get the necessary platitudes out of the way, I do not deny the inherent value one might find in empathy, especially in the private domain. Romantic relationships, friendships, familial relationships are, and indeed should, all be based on mutual understanding, which is fueled and maintained by exercises of empathy. Neither is empathy utterly inappropriate in the public domain, motivating as it often does unique acts of altruism. No. My position is much more moderate and pertains to the narrowly circumscribed area of the place of empathy in politics proper – in this area, I support a kind of emotive minimalism, the idea that empathy should always play a minimal, if any, role among citizens and in political decision-making and should always give way when rational thinking commands otherwise.

All that being said, it is not hard to see how excessive empathy from politicians can have detrimental effects. Populism, chief among such effects, is always one of its surest fruits, dependent as it is on emotional responses from the populace, thriving as it does on the drug of anger and resentment.

A much more insidious way in which empathy poisons politics, however, has to do with theoretical danger that stems directly from its nature. Empathy is not amenable to rational principles that can guide it: what exactly, besides rational considerations of who merits preference or priority, prevents a politician of one country from showing empathy for the afflicted citizens of another country? Presumably, the same things that would command empathy for the former (e.g. the suffering of fellow human beings) would command empathy for the latter as well.

And even within her own country, should the politician not feel empathy for the all afflicted citizens of her own country alike? But, of course, she must also not feel such universal empathy. Different segments of a society often have different, conflicting interests, cause each other mutual pain, end up in symmetric situations which are such that empathy for one group would be mutually exclusive with empathy for the other. This, therefore, is the deeper problem the empathic politician has to face: the benefactors of her empathy demand an empathic monogamy.

Yet another respect in which empathy’s disruptive nature corrodes the political has to do with the shifts it creates in social relations toward a debilitating egalitarianism. Imagine a perfectly empathic parent who cannot bring himself to see his baby daughter get a vaccine shot on account of her incessant, heart-melting crying. That parent, assuming that he can perfectly empathize with his daughter’s suffering, faces a direct challenge to his authority as a parent. His empathy leads him astray, in that it has molded a likeness, a likeness of feeling, between the two individuals that nearly cancels the imbalance of power that constitutes their parent-to-child relationship.

The case of politics is similar – empathy, again, seems to threaten us with softer politicians who bow so much down to their political bases as to be assimilated with them. That’s why empathy’s niche is the private, and that’s why its temporary migrations into the public need care and caution.

For without care and caution, excessive empathy can dismantle the vital demarcations between private and public. The capacity to feel someone else’s feelings is almost doomed to a certain sort of imperfection – no matter how closely one’s empathy simulated the suffering Aylan Kurdi’s parents went through, it was just that: a simulation. One assembled from one’s own perceptions, images, experiences – a make-believe copy made of different materials. These medically proved imperfect projections that empathy leads us to represent an enlargement of our private spheres. By empathizing excessively with our fellow citizens, we project ourselves onto others, onto the public sphere, thereby shrinking it. The enlarged personal territory we create this way seems to allow only, or at least mostly, for emotional associations, thereby exiling rational associations into the remaining, shrunken extra-empathic matrix of the public.

The full consequences of such expansions of the private are not entirely clear to me, I admit, and perhaps have yet to be seen. Neither are its debilitating egalitarianism or its unprincipled universalizability. Yet it is clear that, in the political domain, these are properties of empathy that go part and parcel with most of what is also desirable about it. And that is precisely what emotive minimalism appeals to here: like a drug, political empathy can only pay off under strict regimens of measured dosage.