Public figures, such as Barack Obama and Mohandas Ghandi, hail empathy as our best tool to cut through partisanship and division. Many academics are similarly enthused with empathy. Steven Pinker highlights its role in decreasing violence. Martha Nussbaum regards it as an essential ingredient of humanity. Supporting this view, psychologists find that higher levels of empathy are correlated with increased emotional wellbeing, greater social connectedness, better health, cooperation, and altruism. Empathy is not a perfect tool, however. Paul Bloom and Jesse Prinz argue that empathy is idiosyncratic, easily manipulated, biased in favor of one’s in-group, and exacerbates rather than relieves underlying inequalities. Fritz Breithaupt argues that empathy not only fails to stop negative acts like sadism, bullying, and terrorism, it motivates and promotes such acts. These scholars argue that empathy will not save us. In fact, it might make us worse off. I will examine this intersection of praise and criticism of empathy. I will argue that empathy is biased in the ways critics describe because empathy is motivated. Conceiving of empathy as motivated leads to surprising conclusions about our tools for moral decision-making.
Shannon Spaulding is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma State University. Her general philosophical interests are in the philosophy of mind, philosophical psychology, and the philosophy of science. The principal goal of her research is to construct a philosophically and empirically plausible account of social cognition. She also has research interests in imagination, pretense, and moral psychology. She recently published a book on social cognition called How We Understand Others: Philosophy and Social Cognition.