The limited value of empathy

We sympathize with someone else, Kevin Williamson reminds us in the latest National Review, when we imagine that person’s feelings or situation and then feel concern for him. We empathize with that person, in contrast, when we experience that person’s feelings as our own. “People who literally experience others’ feelings are either characters in novels or nuts,” Williamson writes. “Empathy is either an affectation, a literary device, or a delusion.”

Nonetheless, President Obama and his supporters place a great deal of emphasis on the value of empathy.

The president, who gives the impression of being none too careful a thinker, says he believes that having “the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young, teenaged mom” might illuminate the political questions surrounding abortion, but he never says why he believes that. People who have made the same mistakes as we have can be useful teachers — or they can be bad influences and enablers of destructive habits. Teenaged mothers could learn a great deal from women who did not become teenaged mothers, even if the lack of common experience left those women with little in the way of what the president calls “empathy.” For that matter, those young women could learn a great deal from responsible and mature men, a fact that surely must have occurred to President Obama, who is the father of two daughters.

Why should poor people or disabled people need politicians who know what it is like to be poor or disabled? They already know what it is like to be poor or disabled. (It stinks.) Who would be more useful to an unemployed man: a man who knows what it is like to be unemployed, through long personal experience, or a man who never has been unemployed, because he built a business and employed himself? The main problems of the poor and unemployed do not not include a shortage of people able to commiserate with them — their problems are a shortage of money, a shortage of marketable skills, a shortage of economic growth, etc. Scarcity is real, and it cannot be empathized away. Similarly, the very last thing people suffering from addiction, illegitimacy, illiteracy, abuse, violence, or poverty need is our empathy — you’d think four years of high unemployment, growing poverty, and soaring dependency rates, all accompanied by great gobs of empathy, would have taught us that. What they need is our sympathy, which sometimes causes our hearts to direct our heads to communicate certain hard truths, including the facts about the sorts of decisions that can lead one into poverty and misery — or out.

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