Empathy and Progressivism

Given the importance of empathy to my political worldview, I was surprised to read in a recent New Yorker magazine an essay by Paul Bloom presenting a “case against empathy” as providing a faulty basis for motivating progressive policy outcomes. According to Mr. Bloom:

 

Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.

 

This critique appears to be based on two fundamental concerns with empathy.

 

First, Mr. Bloom contends that empathy does not provide a good guide to policy for progressives because both sides can urge empathy for the individuals who are benefited or harmed by a proposed policy as a reason to support or defeat such policy.

 

Second, empathy is typically triggered by the “identifiable victim effect,” which gets us focused on a small number of people who were impacted by a particular circumstance like a natural disaster or a murder, rather than on the fact that vast numbers of people throughout the world are suffering far worse fates with little to no attention paid by the rest of us.