Tuesday, May 9, 2017
Empathy is the most valuable psychological resources we have. It allows us to resonate with and respond to the suffering of others. It also allows us to care deeply about the fates of those we love, including our spouses and children. But empathy is being destroyed, leaving people free to ignore the needs of others and perpetrate emotional or physical violence upon them.
Can we really be surprised? We’ve heard about teens posting videos of themselves sucker punching unsuspecting people and posting the footage on YouTube. We know about apps that accommodate routine “hook ups” with multiple partners without any emotional connection at all. We train our kids to be winners, because heaven forbid they feel envious of those who have triumphed or feel badly for those who have failed. We even have a President who mocked reporter Serge F. Kovaleski, who has a congenital joint condition called arthrogryposis that limits flexibility in his arms.
And speaking of Trump, his proposed $6 billion cut in funding to the National Institutes of Health provoked Jimmy Kimmel to respond and in the process, highlight just how empathy-poor we’ve become. Kimmel, whose newborn son had open-heart surgery due to a congenital heart defect, made a plea to maintain health insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. (You can check out the video here.) "If your baby is going to die and it doesn't have to, it shouldn't matter how much money you make," he said. "I think that's something, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that."
The next day, there were messages of support, but there were also headlines like, "Jimmy Kimmel’s obscene lies about kids and medical care" and "Shut up, Jimmy Kimmel, you elitist creep." I even watched CNN's Margaret Hoover criticize Kimmel while falsely asserting that pre-existing conditions will be covered by the GOP bill (You can check that out, here.)
To make matters worse, our empathy deficit is actually being lauded by academics like Paul Bloom. In his book Against Empathy, the researcher makes the case that empathy is an "irrational emotion" that "muddles our judgment." He notes that some of the worst decisions made by individuals and nations are often motivated by "honest, yet misplaced, emotions." Empathy distorts our judgment, he says. Without it, our decisions would be "clearer, fairer, and ultimately more moral." Indeed, writes Bloom, "limiting our impulse toward empathy is often the most compassionate choice we can make."
Human nature is headed toward a selfish, sociopathic murk, but we’re not there yet. While we are certainly no angels, our altruistic side is equally real. There is plenty of convincing research evidence to show that we want our leaders to be empathetic and compassionate. Our collective wellbeing depends on it. So, yes Jimmy, if your baby is going to die and it doesn't have to, it shouldn't matter how much money you make. Period.