This happened in an outreach activity organized by a student organization:
After food was distributed to the kids, I noticed four kids staring at the rest. They were without food.
I asked the organizers why. “Sir, kasi hindi sila kasali sa bilang,” (Sir, they were not included in the head count), they replied.
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand other people’s feelings and problems.” Essential in relationships, empathy is considered as the key to understanding. People appear to respond naturally to the pain and distress of others. The assumption is that if we feel another person’s pain, we will offer assistance to alleviate that pain.
In contrast, “empathy-deficit” is the failure to understand and share the emotions of others. This may be no fault of those who are in this position. They may, in fact, be just behaving matter-of-factly.
We order spaghetti and pizza for our helper’s birthday. We eat first (but of course!) and expect her (naturally!) to clean up the table afterwards. We even raise our voice at her if she doesn’t. We treat our adopted community to the cheapest value-meal. Once a year, we give the poor a kilo of rice and two packs of salty instant noodles. The helper, the poor and our adopted community – we can’t really be in their shoes. They are too different from us.
While empathy is to understand and share other people’s emotions and feelings, it is inherently biased. We naturally feel for people who are attractive, and who are perceived to be like us. We don’t really care much about those who we consider ugly or those who are strangers to us.
Akin to a spotlight, empathy calls our attention to particular groups of people. People outside of these groups often do not evoke that sense of empathy in us and we could not care less about them. The more we care about members of our own group, the more heightened is the aggression we feel toward those who are not in our group. This explains why in competitive situations, we often relish watching the pain and failure of our rival groups.
And because empathy is sentimental, superficial and parochial, it clouds our decisions on who to extend our help. Featuring a “victim” (usually beautiful) channels resources to her cause, but it deprives other victims the same access to the resources. This is not just.
Philosopher David Hume argued that before one could arrive at a moral judgment, one needed to reflect on the emotion of another. In 2011, this was refuted by philosopher Jesse Prinz. In Against Empathy, he posits that empathy is potentially harmful due to its biases.
Author Paul Bloom echoes Prinz. In Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Bloom says that as a spotlight, empathy “illuminates others, making vivid their pain and joy… but only illuminate where they are pointed at, and where we direct our empathy reflects our biases.”
According to Bloom, empathy is “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.”
That experience is biased. The resulting judgment is amoral, if not immoral.
… and so, together with the officers who opted not to give up their share of food (they were included in the head count), the kids were enjoying their one-piece burger steak with rice. I noticed one officer had a totally different fare. I asked why.
“Sir, ako bumili nito, ha?” (Sir, I bought this myself), he replied, before taking another lustful bite into his two-piece chicken meal.
He’s one of us.
Real Carpio So lectures on strategy and human resource management at the Management and Organization Department of Ramon del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. He is also an entrepreneur and a management consultant. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Archives can be accessed at realwalksonwater.wordpress.com. The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty and its administrators.