Monday, June 22, 2015

For Empathy!

As a follow-up to a previous blog post, Against Empathy? , I would like to share a column by Denise Cummins, PhD, a cognitive scientist and author. Dr. Cummins is an elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and her research specialty is decision-making and thinking.

In her column, which appeared in Psychology Today in 2013, Cummins argues that Bloom is wrong when he concludes "empathy is prone to biases that render moral judgment potentially harmful.” 

 As Cummins points out in her column, Bloom errs when he posits that empathy for the suffering of individual victims that we can identify with because they are "like us" produces biased and faulty moral reasoning that can lead to mass retribution and violence.

Cummins argues that Bloom places too much value on reasoning, which is certainly not immune from faulty  moral judgements. Cummins suggests that it is the pairing of empathy with "good" reasoning that leads to humanitarian actions.

"The answer is to expand our empathy to include those who are not like us. That is what drove so many white Americans to argue for the abolition of slavery, the end of Jim Crow laws, and the institution of civil rights.......It is precisely our ability to imagine the plight of the nameless and faceless that elicits our empathy and our desire to act."

Dr. Cummins ends her column with the following call for embracing both our capacity for empathy and our ability to reason when engaging in moral reasoning.

"Instead, it is the marriage of empathy to principle that has always been and will continue to be our salvation. It is our ability to generalize and to direct our empathy through the use of reason that is our saving grace. Without that, it is easy to create a holocaust, a crusade, or a jihad.

More on Dr. Cummins' illuminating views on the value of empathy can be found  on the Culture of Empathy website.

Dr. Cummins wrote Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas that Influence the Way We Think (Cambridge University Press, 2012).