Most people agree that the ability to empathize with others is part of what makes a person good. If we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and walk a mile in them, we can better understand their joy and misery, right? Well, the answer may be a bit more complex.
While empathy can push us to help others, it can also exhaust our emotional bank or push us to retaliation. And, importantly, it can cloud our judgment.
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but the most common meaning corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more practical process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, and what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy. The two are distinct and involve very different brain processes, but most discussions of the moral implications of empathy focus on its emotional side.
In a speech before he became president of the United States, Barack Obama stressed how important it is
to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.
Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” which states that "feeling empathy for others, makes you more likely to help them. In general, empathy helps dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it works against selfishness and indifference.