You have to be kind to be cruel: Empathy is held up as humanity’s moral salvation, but scientific study exposes its dark and dangerous

There is a danger in using the word too loosely,” believes Lynne Cameron of the Open University, who is engaged on a three-year programme to understand the dynamics of empathy.

She refers to the rhetoric as “deceptive” and “disturbing”. The difficulty is this: empathy can be defined as stepping into someone else’s shoes, but have you ever tried it? Your imaginative exercise might evoke concern for the Chinese factory worker in Shenzhen.

Yet it can also provoke antipathy. What is consumer culture, if not an exercise in mass empathy, powered by the desire for the shoes of the rich and famous, because you long to wear them, too?

Empathy is morally ambivalent.