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If I were a drinking man, I’d play a drinking game: Open a dating app, the comments section of a Washington Post article, a feminist blog, or any other place where people of a left-wing persuasion congregate, and take a shot every time someone writes a paean to empathy.
Whatever your neighbor’s teenage daughter may say, empathy is not a virtue. Empathy is a useful and morally neutral psychological phenomenon, one which might underlie certain virtues, but one which is not itself sufficient as the basis for any coherent ethical system.* The world would not ipso facto become a better place if “everyone had more empathy.” On the contrary, it might degenerate into some version of what we see now: quivering masses of emotional gelatin demanding therapeutic self-affirmation in the form of safe spaces and coloring books; a people paralyzed in unending anguish merely because somewhere, someone is suffering. As a moral principle, empathy is self-defeating. Too often, appealing to the “capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference” is akin to saying, “Every action or belief is legitimate from the point of view of the person who experiences it, and therefore every action or belief is legitimate.” Empathy easily descends into excuse-making. (Take the canonical example of an abused girlfriend: Is she really better off for “showing empathy” to her abuser?) Once empathy is removed from the psychological realm and introduced to the ethical one, it negates the very purpose of ethics, which is to establish a series of principles by which actions can be judged.