I’m writing short essays/posts in response to questions submitted by significant donors to my Charity:Water campaign. This is one of them.
One reader asks this question:
“How should a society encourage and breed empathy in its members?”
First, a standard definition of empathy:
n. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
“Society” is not a force or a mind that can act. So it makes sense to start with asking what *people* can do to encourage empathy.
Empathic behavior probably has to start at home: start being more empathic yourself. After that, there’s nothing quite like reading (or serious engagement with other forms of narrative art) to get people to put themselves in the shoes of others. So read a lot to your kids, read a lot for yourself, and make reading as interesting and fun as you can make it.
As to “breeding”, well the simple answer is to get the empathetic men and empathetic women to have more babies together. Come to think of it, that’s a good way to encourage empathy as well. Your choice in your partner is a vote for certain behaviors from both your partner and your offspring.
But there are some reasons even a compassionate, empathetic person might not want to select for empathy as a trait. Some people may be psychologically incapable or unsuited for empathy, and that’s ok. We need those folks too. And empathy may not be the be-all, end-all it’s cracked up to be.
The author Paul Bloom made an interesting case against empathy – and for a more calculated compassion – in an EconTalk podcast episode. I gathered roughly that empathy may allow effective feeling of others’ pain but may be a roadblock to actually resolving that pain.
Doctors can’t afford to feel everything their patients are feeling if they are going to be effective. Farmers can’t afford to feel what the plants, animals, and bugs are feeling when they are growing our food. Soldiers can’t afford to feel their opponents’ fears, at least not for long. Even in service industries and care jobs, too much “feeling their pain” can cloud sound judgment.
Consideration? Yes. Consideration is absolutely necessary so that decisions are not blind. Compassion? Yes. Compassion must bring us to treat even the worst of our fellow human beings as worthy of dignity. But empathy needs to be balanced in other areas, and it is not a virtue on its own.