Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Jason Marsh - The Limits of David Brooks’ “Limits of Empathy”


Writing the Greater Good blog, Jason Marsh offers a clear rebuttal to the recent David Brooks column in the New York Times on "The Limits of Empathy." Brooks offers a rather dismissive perspective on empathy, which is very much in-line with the conservative attacks on President Obama when he suggested empathy as a measure for a good Supreme Court justice.

He seems to be taking a rather pragmatic and limited view - arguing that we do indeed feel empathy, but that it has little or no connection to moral action.

Here is a section from Brooks's column:
Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.

There have been piles of studies investigating the link between empathy and moral action. Different scholars come to different conclusions, but, in a recent paper, Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, summarized the research this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” Other scholars have called empathy a “fragile flower,” easily crushed by self-concern.
This is partial at best - we know that infants and toddlers feel and express empathy, often toward other infants and toddlers. More to the point, many people do put personal well-being second to helping others, as this article from Kristen Renwick Monroe examines. I am reminded of the recent video of strangers risking their lives and safety to lift a burning car and pull a motorcyclist away from the flames. Such actions defy Brooks's argument.

Anyway, here is a little bit from Marsh's article:

The Limits of David Brooks’ “Limits of Empathy”

By Jason Marsh | October 4, 2011

Does empathy lead to altruism? The New York Times columnist gets it wrong.

Over the last few days, a lot of people have asked me about David Brooks’ Friday op-ed column in The New York Times on the “limits of empathy.” In it, Brooks argues that empathy is a “sideshow” to moral action. Considering the glut of recent books on empathy—such as Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy and Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization—Brooks writes that empathy “has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them.”

Empathy, in other words, is little more than a fad.
And here is some of his main point:
But Brooks is misguided, misinformed, or being needlessly provocative to discount or disparage empathy altogether. A considerable amount of research suggests empathy is an important ingredient to moral action, if not the only ingredient.
Studies have found that kids with more empathy are less likely to bully. One recent study shows that inducing empathy in white people reduces their feelings of prejudice toward African Americans and encourages more positive interracial interactions. And a seminal  study by Samuel and Pearl Oliner looked for commonalities among people who had rescued Jews during the Holocaust; the Oliners found that the rescuers were deeply empathic—from a young age, they were encouraged by their parents to take other people’s perspectives.
In fact, in a review of decades of research on altruism, psychologist Daniel Batson, who has studied the topic himself for 40 years, writes in the  Handbook of Positive Psychology that “considerable evidence supports the idea that feeling empathy for a person in need leads to increased helping of that person.”
Read the whole argument - it's a good refutation of Brooks's limited perspective.

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