Empathy, a capacity to understand and feel what another is experiencing, has been seen as a moral virtue we should have for as long as we can remember. It can’t be denied that there are numerous positive behaviors that come from this moral virtue called empathy. It is because of empathy that we choose to donate to charity, be a volunteer in disaster-stricken areas, give up our high paying full time jobs to work in NGO, show loves to strangers, and many more. It’s because we can understand their pain that we want to do something about it even if it costs us something. In a world where we live by depending on one another, the ability to feel empathy might be one of the foundation that makes our society works. It’s now wonder that empathy is usually one of the earliest virtue parents introduce to their children even until now.
However, empathy has its sinister side.
Empathy, while be able to drive us to good behavior, can also drive us into aggression. This can be observed by ourselves when we encounter a tragic news, let’s take an example of Angeline’s case few months ago. When we heard that a kid has been killed, possibly been raped before, and buried inhumanely in poultry cage, what were our response? We condemned the murderer, we wished the heaviest punishment possible were enacted to the perpetrator, some of us might hope a death penalty was given in that case. That was an example where our empathy towards victims and their agony brings malice to ourselves, making us hope that the perpetrator that caused the suffering of the victims pays for what they do.
A research by psychologists Anneke Buffone and Michael Poulin has shown this causality link between degree of empathy and aggression in an experiment. Here’s an excerpt of that experiment as what was written in The Atlantic :
“Subjects were told about a competition between two students in another room of the lab. Half of the subjects read an essay in which one of the students described herself as being in distress (“I’ve never been this low on funds and it really scares me”); the others read an essay in which she was mellow (“I’ve never been this low on funds, but it doesn’t really bother me”). The subjects were then told that they were going to help out in a study of pain and performance, wherein they would get to choose how much hot sauce the student’s competitor would have to consume.
Keep in mind that this competitor didn’t do anything wrong; he or she had nothing to do with the student’s anxiety about money. Nonetheless, the subjects chose to give more hot sauce to this other person when the student was described as distressed. Their empathy drove aggression, even when it made no moral sense.”
This is a phenomenon we can see in life more often than what we might realize. Three Strikes Law, an infamous law that gives life sentence for those who committed felony three times, was originated when a mindless robbing and killing incident happened to a girl in a broad daylight. That incident was what makes bla bla bla, the father of said girl to push for a change in justice system in the form of three strikes law. This case shows that empathy can push our society to justify an increase in punishment for criminals. Another case is how Donald Trump brings up Kate, a child who was killed by illegal immigrant, to support his campaign to deport all illegal immigrants and strengthen his narrative that most of illegal immigrants are evil sent by Mexican government. Seeing his position in latest popularity polls lately, it’s hard to argue that his method is ineffective.
This is even more apparent in a case of military conflict. The beginning of the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas was when Israel found its teenagers killed by Hamas. The killing creates justification for Israel constituents to support military aggression despite knowing how it will kill many people and even endanger themselves. In Hamas side, pictures of babies being burned to death and casualties of war are used to fuel the hatred and gather support for their resistance. It’s kinda ironic that empathy that is seen as a virtue that makes peace possible, can also be used as fuel to malice and conflicts.
I think this should be something we’re aware of. This empathy is one part of our moral compass that we use to make a judgement and take a stance in something. As a part of democratic state, we face this situation almost everyday. Is this wise to support death penalty for drug dealers? What is my stance about that US military operation in Syria? Is my country stance about refugee crisis good for all parties involved? To make this decision, we have to admit that choosing the decision driven by the malice we got from empathy might not give the best result.For example, death penalty has been scientifically proven to be ineffective to increase deterrent effect for criminals yet we still do it anyway, because we believe that what matters is that the perpetrator pays for the deeds he did. However, that’s not the most important thing right? I personally think that the most important things are about how we can prevent the crime from happening and get the perpetrator of the crime into the right path, which can’t be achieved by death penalty. Empathy can affect our decision making process into a decision that will not provide the best solution.
Of course I don’t call for people to stop teaching empathy to their children. Empathy is still a great moral virtue to have but it has its other side that can influence you into something you might not desire. So maybe next time you see a politician trying to sell his new policy, you need to see past all the sob stories and get to the analyze it for what it is, a policy that can either make a betterment or not.