Is empathy overrated?

“(…) Further, spotlights only illuminate what they are pointed at, so empathy reflects our biases. Although we might intellectually believe that the suffering of our neighbor is just as awful as the suffering of someone living in another country, it’s far easier to empathize with those who are close to us, those who are similar to us, and those we see as more attractive or vulnerable and less scary. Intellectually, a white American might believe that a black person matters just as much as a white person, but he or she will typically find it a lot easier to empathize with the plight of the latter than the former. In this regard, empathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that prejudice does.

(…) Intellectually, we can value the lives of all these individuals; we can give them weight when we make decisions. But what we can’t do is empathize with all of them. Indeed, you cannot empathize with more than one or two people at the same time. Try it. Think about someone you know who’s going through a difficult time and try to feel what she or he is feeling. Feel that person’s pain. Now at the same time do this with someone else who’s in a difficult situation, with different feelings and experiences. Can you simultaneously empathize with two people? If so, good, congratulations. Now add a third person to the mix. Now try 10. And then 100, 1,000, 1,000,0000.”

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