So empathy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

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!

Author: latefruit

I am forever writing the great American novel, practicing the piano (in hopes of joining an amateur string quartet someday), gardening, and now, since I've gotten old when I wasn't looking, trying to figure out what that means.

2 thoughts on “So empathy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?”

  1. I am very empathetic but I’ve hear that younger generations are lacking. There was a number attached to that study but I can’t remember it. I do recall a different study where babies were brought into a classroom with one of the parents and the children were allowed to interact with it. Apparently, it helps them develop a greater sense of empathy when they see the baby express itself.

  2. Empathy is “the power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation”, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Therefore, people who help others out of a sense of “duty” are not empathetic, because any assistance given to others through empathy has nothing to do with duty. It is all about seeing yourself in their shoes (“There, but for the grace of God, go I”)and doing whatever you can to help them, as you would hope someone would do for you, if your were in the same situation. Which is probably another way of saying “Love thy neighbour as thyself”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: