As Empathy Fades


By Joshua Halberstam

Published April 29, 2005, issue of April 29, 2005.
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Let us now think of the tsunami. Few do anymore. It’s been months since those waves washed across Asia and across our television screens; our sympathies, once so stirred, have receded with the calming of the waters. This is only natural, of course. Empathy is bound to ebb with passing time as surely as the ebbing of the tides themselves. But this should also give us pause. For again we’re reminded of the divide between how we should feel and how we do, and why our affections are unreliable guides to moral action.

Spatial distance should not determine the depth of responses to tragedy, yet the fire in our neighborhood disturbs us more than an earthquake 5,000 miles away. Singular events disquiet as a series of misfortunes do not; we are more unsettled by a plane crash that kills 50 than the average 100 deaths that occur each day in the United States in distinct car crashes. Because we are unable to fathom large numbers, the 150,000 deaths in the recent deluge have become a mental concept and less gripping than the deaths of a few recognizable individuals. So too, we understand that temporal distance should no more contour our feelings than spatial distance, yet after a few months the tug of the tsunami has all but withered. There are, to be sure, deep evolutionary explanations for this emotional remove: Greater empathy for one’s immediate circle is vital to survival. Nevertheless, we exhort ourselves to overcome these biases and broaden the ambit of concern. So we stare at the pictures, reread the tragic accounts, conjure others’ suffering, try hard to imagine what it is like. But it doesn’t always work. Does it matter if it doesn’t?

Jews in particular have reason to be wary of empathy’s self-deceptions. Through books, museums, lectures, school projects and all forms of art, Jews have campaigned mightily not to allow the horrors of the Holocaust to fade into oblivion. But many critics are discomfited by the result: The dead and dying, they argue, are depicted as pitiful victims, their deformed bodies shorn of dignity, an invitation to what some have called the “pornographic gaze” of their viewers. In “The Fragility of Empathy after the Holocaust,” historian Carolyn Dean demonstrates how profoundly the images of current media have led to indifference, compassion-overload and culture-wide numbing and how difficult it is to present the Shoah without inducing these distorted reactions.

Precisely because a person’s emotional response is a thin reed on which to base a moral code, many classical ethical theories avoid the appeal to feelings.The Stoics, for example, insisted that ethical obligations extend impartially to the larger community of rational agents (or all sensate agents, as utilitarians would have it), without any regard to proximity or kinship. Immanuel Kant argued that morality must be grounded in a rational respect for others, not on a tenuous affect, such as compassion. The ability to empathize can’t be enough: Nazi henchmen were not autistic, but keenly aware of their victim’s feelings; in the strict sense of the term, they too were empathetic (from the Greek empatheia, or the German notion of “einfuhlung,” “to feel along with another”), carefully attuned to their victims’ humiliation and pain, and the better to inflict it. But on the other hand, can we be comfortable with an ethics that entirely disregards human feelings? Do we aspire to become Spockian, calculating machines who are unmoved by the anguish of suffering children? And indeed, would we sacrifice for others if they weren’t viscerally distressed by their condition?

The tension between disengaged reason and fluctuating feelings has punctuated Jewish ethics from its inception. One stream of Jewish social ethics is rule-based, deliberately overriding our inclinations. The Bible itself enjoins us — communally and individually — to help the needy whether we want to or not. Thus, as it is often remarked, in contrast to the Christian idea of charity, which derives from christos, or caring, the halachic concept of tzedaka is rooted in tzedek: Justice demands providing for the poor without regard to one’s sympathies. Charity may begin at home, but it can’t end there. On the other hand, an equally rich Jewish moral tradition speaks directly to our sentiments. We are enjoined to love our neighbors and to be sensitive to their needs. For some rabbinic sages, the entire point of the Torah is to elevate our intellectual and moral character.

Neither line of Jewish ethics is complete on its own, but together they provide a fruitful framework for guiding moral action. Jewish theologians trace the roots of both responses — behavioral and emotional — to the concept of imitatio Dei, the injunction to emulate God’s virtues. Thus, Hama bar Hanina explains this imperative as specifically relating to aid for the stricken: Just as God clothes the naked, so shall you; just as He visits the sick, so shall you; just as He comforts the mourner, so shall you [Sota 14a]. But as another Talmudic statement emphasizes, we are enjoined to develop our sensitivities as well — “as He is compassionate, so you should be compassionate.”

But we don’t require this theological premise to see why we need both orientations in dealing with tragedies. We aspire to feel for another’s suffering and not merely act as though we do. Given the natural constraints of our imagination, we turn to words and visual images to enhance this capacity. But when this fails — when empathy fades, when numbness sets in — we need to remind ourselves that obligations do not depend on emotions; that we aren’t moved isn’t sufficient reason not to move. Choosing where to put our money and time — what deserves the investment of our empathy — requires thoughtful consideration. Alas, there are enough calamities in the world to keep both our hearts and our heads busy.

Joshua Halberstam is a writer in New York.

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