I’ve often written about the value of empathy. It’s my long-held belief that seeing the world through the eyes of another is one of the most desirable traits we can strive for, both individually and as a people. Yet recently, there have been two significant developments highlighting just how far we’ve drifted from any state of enlightened empathy.
Author Paul Bloom recently published a delightfully entertaining, if philosophically misguided, work entitled: “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.” Articulate and often humorous, Bloom suggests that far from desirable, empathy is often a destructive emotion in that it promotes a myopic view of life. As one of his many examples, he cites a study wherein participants had to choose between giving money to provide a lifesaving drug to one child or eight children. The two control groups tended to give equal amounts to both. However, when a name or picture was associated with the one child, donations skyrocketed away from the eight.
Examples of the point Dr. Bloom is making can be found in our New York State Legislature. In the past, bills introduced in Albany were designated only by number. Our representatives had to weigh the proposed laws with rational dispatch. However, in a clever effort to garner political support, legislators began attaching victims’ names to proposed legislation. Voting against proposed Law 563 is far easier than registering disapproval against, say, Olivia’s Law. “Against Empathy” suggests that this type of emotional and empathetic appeal is destructive.
It is not surprising that Dr. Bloom holds this perspective since he has long been an admirer of Australian moral philosopher Peter Albert David Singer. Dr. Singer is perhaps best known for his famous essay, “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” in which he advocates in favor of giving assistance to the global poor.
Both Singer and Bloom are philosophical descendants of Jeremy Bentham, whom many have called the Father of Utilitarianism. Simply stated, the core principle of Utilitarianism is what is morally good is whatever maximizes happiness for most people.
The view that public policy should be based on long-term objectives and not on anecdotal considerations has long been shared by proponents who can hardly be labeled utilitarians. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1970, as an advisor to President Nixon, promoted a policy of “benign neglect” towards the African-American community. That slogan was so incendiary that I and 54 of my fellow Fordham graduates walked out of our commencement when Dr. Moynihan rose to speak.
The second stunning blow to empathy is the recent release of President Trump’s budget. The budget seeks to cut dramatically the tax bills of the very rich while threatening the most vulnerable among us. Who will be affected? Ten million Americans, most of whom are disabled, elderly and presently housed in nursing homes. These individuals will be left homeless and penniless. Food stamps, which provide $4.40 a day for those in need, will be cut. The theory behind the cuts is that it will prod disabled people back to work. This ignores the sad truth that most of the recipients are too disabled to work. In the case of food stamps, many are already working but just can’t make it on subsistence wages. They will not now miraculously find better paying jobs, but they will go hungry.
I’ve represented thousands of people over my career. I’ve observed first-hand their struggle to meet their most basic needs. The government, in many of these instances, had provided the very minimum to these fellow citizens, often suffering from mental illness, disability, chronic diseases and addiction. Their struggles are often life and death matters and always heart-wrenching. The programs now on the chopping block allowed my clients to survive and, in some instances, even prosper. These assistance programs make up the “safety net” that many Democratic and Republican presidents thought worthy of preservation.
If there ever was a time for empathy and compassion in our nation’s history, it is now. The proposed budget demonstrates indifference and coldness to those in need, while providing trillion-dollar tax cuts for the very wealthy. The proposed budget will undoubtedly hurt millions of people, especially the sick, the hungry, the disabled, the elderly and the poor. Whatever your political stripe or philosophical bent, we have always been a kind and benevolent people. We’ve never turned our backs on the less fortunate among us. Now is not the time to start.