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.And when it does, it is shockingly biased:
Moreover, Prinz argues, empathy often leads people astray. It influences people to care more about cute victims than ugly victims. It leads to nepotism. It subverts justice; juries give lighter sentences to defendants that show sadness. It leads us to react to shocking incidents, like a hurricane, but not longstanding conditions, like global hunger or preventable diseases.All of this is true. Our sense of affective empathy (empathy as an emotional reaction) is most easily provoked when confronted with suffering of people who are like us and familiar to us. That group includes family most immediately, but can extend toward members of virtually any group who are better known and more like us than those who are not. Neighbors over non-neighbors. People who go to the same church over those who don't, or don't go to church at all. People of the same color vs. another race, people from the same town/state/country before foreigners. Bros before hos*. Preferential empathy isn't antipathy, it's important to note...but it can turn into it, given that allegiances with some people tend to create enemies out of the others.
Still, I find that a kind of odd criticism of empathy-- that it isn't all-encompassing, therefore it can't be a good moral foundation. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, best known for his work on autism, has written that having a deficient theory of mind (the term for our capacity to recognize and understand the thoughts and goals of others) makes it harder for people with autism to experience affective empathy. But that certainly doesn't make them into psychopaths. Instead, it can lead to the creation of a more explicit, removed form of empathy-- one based on broad notions of justice rather than being moved by the suffering of someone specific. I find it entirely fitting to use "empathy" as a term for this because the belief that it's wrong to punish or reward people unequally for the same acts (for example) requires a sense of fairness, and a sense of fairness comes out of an ability to put oneself in the place of someone who is treated unfairly. This is called the simulation theory of empathy-- understanding what a person is thinking and feeling by approximating their situation as best as you can, drawing on your own experiences. When your theory of mind is just that-- a theory-- this is how empathy works for you. Cognitively, rather than as an intuitive response. This way of thinking might have the advantage of provoking people toward a consistent theory of justice, one which isn't as subject to the biases discussed above.
Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them.This is absolutely true. But from what I can tell, that is empathy, if it starts with a consideration for how others must feel and think. We all build our own codes-- from scratch possibly, but for the vast majority of us something more like an amalgamation of those developed from people who came before us, cobbled together and modified as we've seen fit. If that codification is centered around being fair and not causing suffering, then it seems right to call it empathy-based.
*If ever an expression merited an immediate karmic punishment from the universe....