Some say that one of the most important reasons to have literature classes is that reading develops empathy. In today's column in the New York Times, David Brooks suggests the value of this lesson may be overrated.
The Limits of Empathy
By David Brooks
We are surrounded by people trying to make the world a better place. Peace activists bring enemies together so they can get to know one another and feel each other’s pain. School leaders try to attract a diverse set of students so each can understand what it’s like to walk in the others’ shoes. Religious and community groups try to cultivate empathy.
As Steven Pinker writes in his mind-altering new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, we are living in the middle of an “empathy craze.” There are shelfloads of books about it: The Age of Empathy, The Empathy Gap, The Empathic Civilization, Teaching Empathy. There’s even a brain theory that we have mirror neurons in our heads that enable us to feel what’s in other people’s heads and that these neurons lead to sympathetic care and moral action.
There’s a lot of truth to all this. We do have mirror neurons in our heads. People who are empathetic are more sensitive to the perspectives and sufferings of others. They are more likely to make compassionate moral judgments.
The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.
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