Can empathy serve as a reliable guide to action? David Brooks, in his recent article “The Limits of Empathy,” suggests that empathy is no guarantee that caring action will take place. Participants in Milgram’s famous 1950s experiments willingly inflicted what they thought were near-lethal electric shocks despite suffering tremendously. Nazi executors early in the war wept while killing Jews. And yet those strong feelings didn’t stop them. Why does this happen?
I have been haunted for years by this great puzzle, reading, thinking, and writing about it. Brooks suggests that “People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.” My investigations lead me to think that “a sense of duty” is part of the problem, not the solution
by Miki Kashtan