I remember being outraged recently when some Republican (I don’t remember who it was, or the occasion) mocked the call for empathy in a government official. Now, David Brooks, in a recent column in the New York Times, cites studies that show empathy has been overrated. People who are empathetic are not necessarily more ethical.
It came as a shock to me. To me empathy has always seemed like the perfect foil to much of the world’s wickedness. But apparently, “People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty.”
Furthermore, Brooks argues, “These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them.”
I don’t want to debate him, he could be right. Maybe I’ve over-estimated the role of empathy in moral action. But it’s just so obvious to me that empathy is necessary to a civil society and to morality. Certainly, it’s necessary to art! Consider this wonderful passage of pictures and words from Maira Kalman’s book, The Principles of Uncertainty.
It’s a soul-saving book everyone should read!