Thursday, April 22, 2010

Empathy and Good Judgment

President Obama ignited controversy when he named empathy as a necessary quality in a Supreme Court judge. Wendy Long, legal counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network and former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, said, "Lady Justice doesn't have empathy for anyone. She rules strictly based upon the law and that's really the only way that our system can function properly under the Constitution." Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) referred to empathy as “touchy-feely stuff." During Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) asked her, “Have you always been able to have a legal basis for decisions you have rendered and not rely on extralegal concepts such as empathy?”

Long, Graham, and Kyl understand empathy as an uprising of emotion that is irrelevant – even harmful – to sound reasoning and the application of justice. I see empathy as the capacity to understand the world from another’s perspective, part of what Daniel Goleman refers to as emotional intelligence. Empathic reasoning recognizes that others are human like us, thereby shedding light on the facts and making sound judgment more likely.

The concern about empathy reflects a long tradition of valuing rationality, and the Enlightenment's imperative to overcome instincts, passions, and emotions through exercising reason. This exclusive focus on reason applies across the board: to moral theory, to the law, to professional conduct, and to our assessment of our own choices and decisions.

I want to challenge the idea that we make better decisions without emotions. In Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio examined the rare people who have lost their capacity to have emotions as a result of losing their prefrontal lobes. While usually capable of impeccable and intelligent reasoning, such people are unable to make any decisions. Without the capacity to feel and be guided by their emotions, these individuals become entirely dependent on the kindness of their families for navigating even the simplest daily choices. Even though we can reason our way to some decisions, without our emotions we lose the moral and practical compass for making sound ones.

Instead of attempting to overcome emotions, it seems that goal would be determining which emotions can support us in making sound decisions and in living a decent, moral human life. If so, then empathy would be a clear candidate to cultivate. More and more studies indicate how profoundly widespread access to empathic capacity would change human culture. In particular, empathy plays a decisive role in sustaining or preventing violence.

Nowadays, violence is commonly seen as a failure to curb passions and act rationally. My own studies, however, bring me to see violence more as a failure to experience empathy. Modern rationality, with its efficiency and impersonalism, creates conditions that make it more likely for people to ignore empathy. This has resulted in an unprecedented proliferation of violence on a global scale. Indeed, a brief exploration of an admittedly extreme example – mass violence in Nazi Germany – can provide some insight into the significance of empathy.

In Modernity and the Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman suggests that “The Holocaust did not just, mysteriously, avoid clash with the social norms and institutions of modernity. It was these norms and institutions that made the Holocaust feasible.” (Italics mine). When people focus more on doing a good job and following orders than on the impact of their actions, their innate capacity for empathy ceases to function as a guide to moral action. Bauman concludes: “Mass destruction was accompanied not by the uproar of emotions, but the dead silence of unconcern.”

Empathy is the lifeblood of a vibrant democratic society. It is necessary not only for Supreme Court Justices; it is vital for members of Congress, teachers, doctors, police officers, business owners, workers, parents, and children.

The gift of empathy is that it integrates mind and heart in the very same act as it brings together self and other. When we ignore empathy, we pay an enormous price in the form of depression, apathy, victimization, and anger on an individual level, and crime, neglect, alienation, bullying, even war, on a societal level. When we cultivate empathy, our emotional health improves, and in addition also our sense of hope, and our capacity, both individually and collectively, to act as moral agents in addressing the enormous challenges facing us today.

by Miki Kashtan


  1. Several thoughts . . .

    Brain structure and chemistry are likely to have created in us a range of empathic capabilities. I have a good friend whose five year old seems to be quite limited in his ability to identify feelings in others (or himself). This may be on the "autism" end of the scale and on the other end is the "Williams Syndrome" where the hormone oxytocin (the "trusting hormone"--recent NPR story) is always in the "on" position. These are pathologies but suggest people in general exhibit varying degrees of empathic capacity.

    Second, those who categorically deny the importance of empathy in making decisions, such as in a judge's ruling, seem to not understand that feelings always impact our decisions, whether we will or no. Only by recognizing them within ourselves and bringing them into the light of day are we able to discover how they might be impacting any decisions we might be called upon to make.

    Thirdly and relatedly, even if we consider ourselves to be an empathic person (and not a rationalist or a strict constitutionalist), we are not immune from being prey to unconscious feelings and consequent acting out behavior. This, of course, is an extremely complex and multidimensional subject and can be looked at through a biological, a psychological, a spiritual, a cultural lens (among others). But having said that, I say that self knowledge, self-awareness and willingness to see, own, embrace and learn to love our darker selves is a key element in becoming a more empathic person, capable of feeling with all our brothers and sisters.

  2. Thanks, Miki. Mitsiko Miller recommended your "Fearless Heart" essay to me. So thanks also to Mitsiko.

    Many people conflate the meanings of the word "empathy" with the meansings of the words "compassion" and/or "sympathy". Empathy is different, however, from either of the latter in that in empathy one does not presume a superior status as we often do in sympathy and some do in "giving compassion", nor does one presume that one's imagination of another's situation or thinking is accurate. Instead we give sensitive attention to small details and imaginative, considerate curiosity to discovering the evolving circumstances of others and the emotions related thereto. Most important, unlike in extending compassion or sympathy, in extending empathy we do not create dependence or encourage the settling in of either a victim or an entitlement mentality. Rather, we encourage the reciprocal flow of goodwill and fellow feeling -- or, as author Marshall Rosenberg puts in, what's alive in us now". Only in a culture in which genuinely reciprocal flows are the norm can the curiosity essential to learning flourish. In such a culture we all do indeed learn in good time what our organization/community needs us to learn, and we also do pass on what we learn in good time also.