Amygdala activation and perspective taking in relation to empathy. © Jean Decety | Decety Lab
EssaysIn DepthThe Psyche

The Attack on Empathy

I feel for Jeremy Rifkin. In 2010, Rifkin, a public intellectual and best-selling author, published a remarkable book titled The Empathic Civilization. In it, Rifkin argues (1) that humans are soft-wired for empathic feelings toward others and that (2) this potential has to be fostered if we are to survive, as a species, on our precious little planet. The book is a tour-de-force, in which ideas, data from various disciplines and anecdotes are built upon to make a case for empathy. Rifkin is not always very precise, or even correct in reporting scientific findings, but by and large his thesis holds. Empathy is good for you, and for others, and as a society we should do our best to foster it. Yet, Rifkin’s ideas have been the target of a rather intense attack by several eminent scholars, notably psychologists Paul Bloom and Steven Pinker, and philosopher Jesse Prinz. What’s not to agree with in Pinker’s ideas?

Bloom, Pinker and Prinz, echoed by New York Times’ columnist David Brooks, do not think that we should rely on empathy to build a better world. Let’s review some of their ideas.

A good start is Brooks’ article. The article elicited a host of reactions among readers and, not surprisingly, among scholars who formally study empathy. These scholars saw decades of research findings dismissed in an 800-word piece destined to a reading public of hundreds of thousands. Brooks builds his argument “against” empathy from Steven Pinker’s last book (The Better Angels of Our Nature) and a chapter by Jesse Prinz, titled “Is Empathy Necessary for Morality.” The latter is a concise piece, which can be easily read over a 6 oz cup of coffee. Pinker’s is an 800-pages book, which deals with much more than this specific question, and requires a several gallons of coffee, and a great deal of determination, to be conquered.