In his new book, Evil Men, James Dawes confronts some of the worst crimes imaginable. The book is based on his interviews with convicted war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War, and is as much about the ethical challenges of his relationships with these men as it is about their past acts. In his probing of the depths of the human capacity for atrocity, Dawes also offers an altogether unique examination of the human capacity for empathy. In the piece below, Dawes responds to a recent high-profile denunciation of empathy’s devaluing of faceless suffering.
Paul Bloom’s recent New Yorker article, “The Case Against Empathy,” makes a depressing argument: empathy—our ability to feel for others—is at the heart of what it means to be a human, and empathy is bad.
Here’s the problem as Bloom sees it: we are hardwired to have empathy for people who exist and, of the people who exist, people we know. This is a big problem in and of itself. But what’s worse is that we don't experience this basic constraint on empathy as a problem. In our day-to-day, we experience it as virtue.
My empathy for my children morally improves me as a father. This is a good thing, but it gets better: the moral improvement of fatherhood leads to other moral improvements. My capacity to extend my empathy to other people’s children—by making them real in my imagination, by showing myself that they are like my children—emotionally prepares me to sacrifice my own family’s interests for other families’ interests. Again: a good thing. And again: it gets better. My experience of empathy for my children gives meaning to my life. Next to that feeling of connection, everything else feels like vanity and baubles.
Many scholars argue that the expansion of empathy is the driver of historical progress and our best hope for the future. Lynn Hunt argues that the invention of a particular kind of empathy through literature was the necessary precursor to the modern human rights movement. Jeremy Rifkin, Paul Ehrlich, and Robert Ornstein call for the development of “global” empathy.
Bloom, respectfully, disagrees. If anything, we need less empathy, not more. Empathy leads us astray. It causes us to pay special attention to what one might call narrative suffering (highly visible, attractive victims that we feel have some kind of relation to us), and thereby to ignore statistical suffering (faceless victims to whom we are not connected). We squander our attention on Baby Jessica who fell into a well (Bloom’s prime example), while ignoring all of the yet-to-exist babies who will be born into the eco-apocalypse caused by our reckless global warming. We generously donate time and money to the victims of spectacular catastrophes even when more time and money isn’t particularly helpful—as with the 2004 tsunami, a disaster for which Doctors Without Borders stopped accepting money, pleading instead for donations to less media-friendly crises. Meanwhile, we stingily withhold resources that could make critical differences for the vast population suffering from the invisible, slow tortures of poverty, violence, and disease.
Bloom’s essay upset many. One of the twitter responses—which Bloom happily re-tweeted—declared: “Possibly the dumbest thing I've ever read.” At the risk of making myself a twitter target, let me add some fuel to the fire. Bloom’s case against empathy is made at the broadest social level; he worries about what we might call our “aggregate empathy.” In this article, at least, he is not worried about empathy at the level of individual personal relationships. I think he should be. I think the case against empathy goes, so to speak, all the way down.
In my experience taking confessions from aging war criminals from the Second Sino- Japanese war, I struggled with empathy. Even as they described in detail the monstrous, unforgivable things they did, I found the almost irresistible forces of compassion and affection rising within me for these frail, charming, remorseful old men. I felt sorry for them for the crimes they committed. What would a survivor of their violence say to me about this?
That’s one worry. Another worry is that the empathy isn’t empathy at all. The feeling for others that we call empathy might often be a thin disguise for narcissism and even voyeurism. We think we are drawn to and captivated by stories of other people’s trauma because we are caring creatures, because empathy compels us. But perhaps we are drawn to stories of suffering because we feel an insecure need to display to ourselves, through our performed empathetic response, our moral worth. Or perhaps we are drawn to stories of suffering because some of us have the privilege of being bored. As Eva Hoffman put it when criticizing the interest people take in the stories of Holocaust survivors: we have “significance envy.” We borrow from the tragedy of others to make our empty days feel purposeful and high-stakes. We are emotional parasites.
But let’s put all that aside. Let’s say our empathy really is empathy, that it really is about caring for the other. Even then, empathy can be dangerous. If we don’t get close enough to the other, our empathy is thin and superficial. We under-identify. But if we get too close, we over-identify. Our empathy can erase the other; we can find ourselves emotionally standing-in for the other.
But let’s put that aside, too. Let’s say we get the distance just right, seeing the other in the fullness of their identity but also respecting their difference from us, respecting (excuse for a moment the jargon) that they are unassimilable. Even then, empathy can be dangerous. One of the primary arguments for empathy is that it promotes helping behavior. But what if the opposite is true? What if empathy doesn’t give us the energy for action? What if it uses up our energy for action? Taking the case of our empathetic responses to fictional stories, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued in 1758:
In giving our tears to these fictions, we have satisfied all the rights of humanity without having to give anything more of ourselves; whereas unfortunate people in person would require attention from us, relief, consolation, and work, which would involve us in their pains and would require at least the sacrifice of our indolence, from all of which we are quite content to be exempt. It could be said that our heart closes itself for fear of being touched at our expense. In the final accounting, when a man has gone to admire fine actions in stories and to cry for imaginary miseries, what more can be asked of him? Is he not satisfied with himself? Does he not applaud his fine soul? Has he not acquitted himself of all that he owes to virtue by the homage which has just rendered it? What more could one want of him? That he practice it himself? He has no role to play; he is no actor.
Empathy—our ability to feel for others—is at the heart of what it means to be a human. Empathy morally improves me. Empathy gives meaning to my life. Empathy is the driver of historical progress and our best hope for the future. I believe all of this. I really do. But I also think the case against empathy is strong. And I think it is useful. To be satisfied with empathy is the easiest thing in the world. To get critical distance from it is hard, but necessary. My colleagues and I, all teachers of human rights, often joke about the “squishy” empathy we see in our first-year students. It is a necessary starting point, but we hope when they leave us four years later that their empathy will be sharper, more weather-beaten and scrappy. That kind of empathy, we believe, really might help change the world.