From the New York Times:
Paul Bloom: What does it take to be a good person? What makes someone a good doctor, therapist or parent? What guides policy-makers to make wise and moral decisions?
Many believe that empathy — the capacity to experience the feelings of others, and particularly others’ suffering — is essential to all of these roles. I argue that this is a mistake, often a tragic one.
Empathy acts like a spotlight, focusing one's attention on a single individual in the here and now. This can have positive effects, but it can also lead to short-sighted and unfair moral actions. And it is subject to bias — both laboratory studies and anecdotal experiences show that empathy flows most for those who look like us, who are attractive and who are non-threatening and familiar.
When we appreciate that skin color does not determine who we should care about, for example, or that a crisis such as climate change has great significance — even though it is an abstract threat — we are transcending empathy. A good policy maker makes decisions using reason, aspiring toward the sort of fairness and impartiality empathy doesn't provide.
Empathy isn’t just a reflex, of course. We can choose to empathize and stir empathy for others. But this flexibility can be a curse. Our empathy can be exploited by others, as when cynical politicians tell stories of victims of rape or assault and use our empathy for these victims to stoke hatred against vulnerable groups, such as undocumented immigrants.