The World Needs Less Empathy - Kol Nidre 5778

The world needs less empathy. 

Not what you were expecting me to say? 

I’m a bit surprised myself; I have stood in this spot before teaching about the importance of empathy — how our experience as strangers in Egypt is supposed to lead us to empathize with other people suffering today and that our empathy should motivate us to work for causes that support the poor, refugees, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, equality, health care and more. But it turns out that inspiring empathy is not the best way to increase moral behavior and that empathy is not enough.

Empathy is often understood to be the root of compassion and moral behavior: if I feel how you feel, if I’m hurt when you hurt, then I will do whatever I can to alleviate your suffering. Empathy can lead to good outcomes — we might be more likely to help someone if we empathize with them — but empathy is not a good enough motivator for moral action, and can not fix the world by itself. To truly fix the world, we need less empathy.

In his book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom argues that empathy, “the act of feeling what you think others are feeling is different from being compassionate, from being kind, and most of all, from being good. From a moral standpoint, we’re better off without [empathy].”

Empathy is actually a relatively new word; it didn’t enter the English language until the 20th century. Empathy is when we try to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and see from their perspective, to feel what they feel; if they are happy we are happy, if they are in pain, we feel their pain.

Bloom explains that “The English word empathy really is the best way to refer to this mirroring of others’ feelings. …terms like sympathy and pity are about your reaction to the feelings of others, not the mirroring of them. If you feel bad for someone who is bored, that’s sympathy, but if you feel bored, that’s empathy. If you feel bad for someone in pain, that’s sympathy, but if you feel their pain, that’s empathy.” While it may seem counter-intuitive, more empathy does not increase moral behavior, and it does not lead to doing the most good in the world.

Why is empathy failing us? Bloom explains that empathy is like a spotlight, directing our attention to where it’s needed. But spotlights have a narrow focus, he writes, and therein lies the problem. In a world where there are so many people in need, kindness driven by empathy alone can lead to greater suffering.

This summer was filled with examples of how empathy fails us. We have seen catastrophic flooding around the world. Hurricanes and severe weather and earthquakes have destroyed lives and property, leaving thousands homeless and hundreds dead. Here in the United States we were all horrified as we watched Houston virtually sink beneath rising flood waters; Hurricane Harvey was devastating and we could not help but empathize with those who had lost everything.

That’s what our empathy does – it enables us to feel the pain of others and perhaps motivate us to help them. It is easy for us to empathize with those in Houston and Florida. The people being rescued look just like us, their neighborhoods look like ours, the belongings they lost and their destroyed homes could have been ours. And yet at the same time this summer, flooding in West Africa and Southeast Asia was even more devastating. Thousands of people were killed in Sierra Leone, Nepal and Bangladesh. The pictures are just as horrifying — thousands of people lost everything and buried their loved ones. But their neighborhoods don’t look like ours… and they are so very far away… they speak another language… so they did not arouse as much empathy and we were not as quick to open our wallets or our hearts.

This spotlight effect causes us to feel empathy for some people but not for others. We are more likely to feel empathy for people more like ourselves — human beings have evolved to put our own tribe first.

We also have a hard time empathizing on a large scale. We are just not capable of that kind of empathy; it is beyond the limits of the human brain. It is why we find it much easier to focus on one person and their pain than to think about the big picture. This is why more than two million dollars were crowdfunded for a single terminally ill baby in England this summer, while at the same time 60 children died in a hospital in India due to an unpaid oxygen bill of less than $100,000. It is unfathomable to consider that those 60 children would have lived, if not for an unpaid bill, but it is much easier to empathize with one particular family than with 60 unnamed families. 

Mother Teresa describes it this way: “If I look at the masses, I won’t act, but if I look at one, I will.” Northwestern University Professor Adam Waytz says that extending our compassion to every other person on Earth is psychologically impossible. It comes to this: we can not feel empathy for more than one person or group at a time.

When we are overwhelmed by so many people in pain, we become numb to it — we experience empathy collapse. With disaster after disaster, hurricane after hurricane and then earthquakes in Mexico, it became harder and harder to generate empathy. Harvey was the topic of national conversation; by the time Maria hit Puerto Rico, with its significant devastation impacting 3.4 million lives, we were overwhelmed. Empathy fatigue makes us slow to respond. When we feel the pain of others too often, we lose our ability to feel empathy. At some point it becomes too much. Empathy is a limited resource: when we run out of it, we lose our motivation and we fail to act.

Our empathy is also limited when we think a person deserves what is happening to them. We feel far less empathy for people suffering from disease if we think they brought it upon themselves with drug use or unhealthy living. 

The limits of empathy can hinder us from doing the right thing – and misplaced empathy can lead to evil. The rabbis knew this when they taught that “if you are compassionate to people who are cruel, you will ultimately be cruel to people who are compassionate.”

Empathy to one can be cruelty to another, and this is how empathy can lead to immoral behavior. When student athlete Brock Turner was found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault he was given a light sentence because the judge had empathy for him — he was young, athletic and had a bright future ahead of him; the judge, who was also an athlete as a student, did not want to ruin the rest of his life. There was little empathy for the woman Brock assaulted.

Empathy for men who commit sexual assault leads to cruelty toward those who are assaulted. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has empathy for the men who are accused of those crime and is eliminating protections for women who are victims of sexual assault. Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, has said that this “weakens sexual violence protections and will unravel the progress that so many schools have made,” and there is no doubt that this will result in fewer women reporting sexual assault.  

There is also an arrogance to empathy — acting on the belief that we think we know how another person feels. And of course sometimes we’re wrong — otherwise there would never be a terrible birthday present or unwanted surprise party. We hear about the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you want them to do unto you,” but the Jewish version comes from Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to another person.” There is a subtle but critical difference between assuming that someone else will like the same things we do, and avoiding doing the things that we don’t like to someone else.

And we don’t always need or even want empathy. When you are anxious and stressed, empathy is the last thing you need. You don’t want your friend or doctor to get anxious along with you; you want calm and compassion. We don’t have to be in pain to want to ease someone else’s. We don’t have to live through a hurricane to know that people need help.

It’s not that empathy is itself is terrible, but it does not always lead to moral behavior and it is not the best motivator to do good. We need less empathy and more kindness.

You don’t need empathy to generate compassion. Compassion is not the same as empathy, and it is a much stronger motivator toward good. Paul Bloom writes that the difference between the two is critical, and is supported by neuroscience research. Researchers Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki point out that compassion does not mean sharing someone else’s suffering; “rather,” they write, “it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”

Compassion allows us to focus on helping others without necessarily feeling their pain, and that distance from emotion  might also be the cure for empathy fatigue. In studies where people are trained to foster either empathy or compassion, the group that improved their ability to empathize felt worse and did less, while the compassionate group not only felt better — they also did more to help others.

Empathy leads to donations for individuals; compassion can lead to much greater results.

If we were informed about the crisis in India and were motivated by compassion for families with sick children, donations to health organizations in India could have saved those 60 children’s lives this summer. 

Empathy is not the answer; we need responsibility and compassion. So how do we develop those things? The answer, as always, is in Torah. As Jews we are commanded to act compassionately. It is not about feeling empathy; it is about doing the right thing. Tzedaka does not mean charity — it means justice, and a mitzvah is not a good deed — it is a commandment. 

We often mix up the Yiddish, mitzveh, which is a good deed, with the Hebrew word mitzvah, commandment, because they sound so close. Both doing a mitzvah and mitzveh are good, but there is a difference between doing something because you are inspired and doing something because it is required. The Talmud teaches that “Greater is the one who is commanded and does something, than one who does the same thing without being commanded.” Why? Because if you are only welcoming the stranger or feeding the hungry because you feel like it, you might not feel like it next time. Judaism, and the obligations that go along with it, push us toward compassion —regardless of whether we feel empathy. 

Yom Kippur demands that we make amends with people we have hurt, but we might not have much empathy for those people, because we don’t realize how much we have hurt them. We tend to think the pain that we caused was accidental, or incidental; we excuse our actions as tough calls, hard choices and honest mistakes. But we are not as quick to offer excuses for those that hurt us; wrongs that other do to us seem worse: intentional and cruel. We don't weigh the pain we caused to someone else as much as we weigh the pain we experienced ourselves because it did not happen to us. This is called the moralization gap: the tendency to diminish the severity of our own acts relative to others.

Our communal confessional on Yom Kippur helps us put ourselves on even ground with others; it is a reminder that the hurt we have caused others is just as damaging to them as the hurt we have experienced ourselves. We may not be able to feel as much empathy for those we have harmed, but we can be compassionate. 

Jewish values guide us toward compassion. Tomorrow afternoon we will read from the book of Vayikra — Leviticus — from the section called the Holiness Code. We are told exactly what we need to do to be compassionate, regardless of whether we feel empathy. We are taught not to harvest the corners of our fields, and to leave some for the poor and the stranger. We are taught not to steal, lie or bear false witness. Not to exploit our neighbor. Not keep a worker’s wages overnight. Not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. To be fair in judgement, and not to favor the weak or defer to the powerful. Not to spread slander. Not to stand idly by the blood of a neighbor. Not to seek vengeance or bear grudges. Not to wrong a stranger, not cheat in business dealings. We are told we are required to love our neighbor, to respect the elderly and to treat strangers among us like citizens. This is what makes us holy, and this is what we are commanded to do.

We do these things not because we know what it feels like to be hungry or cheated, not because we know what it feels like to need your wages on the day you earn them, not because we know the pain of being the subject of gossip or the victim of a scam. We do these things because they are mitzvot — they are commandments. Obligation pushes us toward moral action — toward compassion for others. We don’t need empathy for our employees or for the elderly — we are obligated to treat them well. And while it is nice to proclaim that we empathize with the stranger, because we were once strangers in Egypt, we are obligated to welcome the stranger even if we don’t have any empathy for them.

The kind of compassion that the Torah demands can also help us continue to do good when empathy fatigue sets in. There are so many things that need our attention right now and if we are trying to fight for racial justice, protect the environment, ensure that people have access to health care, preserve voting rights, defend LGBTQ rights, stand up for immigrants, help the people of Puerto Rico and… well, it is overwhelming and far too easy to just turn it off. Empathy fatigue paralyzes us and we fail to act. The Torah demands that we take action for all of these things — not out of empathy, but out of justice and compassion.

These core Jewish values, at the very center of the Torah, guide our actions. And unlike deeds motivated by empathy, it does not matter if if feels good to do them or if we don’t feel like it; this is what needs to be done.

So practice rational compassion in your giving. In addition to giving to causes that arouse your empathy, research where your dollars will do the most good for the most people and give some there too. Find out what the organization really needs and give what you can. And then work to change the system — if you donate to a GoFundMe page to help pay for a friend’s medical care, write and call your congressperson to demand health care for all; if you are sending money to hurricane victims, be sure to demand that our government take climate change seriously; if you are moved by the story of one family in poverty, make a commitment to bring an item for the SOVA bin every time you enter this building, because that is what the Torah demands.

The Torah is our ever-renewing resource in our fight for justice and peace. 

May the lessons of Torah and our sages teach us how to repair the brokenness in our world. 

May we always act with kindness and compassion, even when our empathy fails us. 

Footnotes and sources available upon request.


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