The word empathy comes from the Greek word empatheia. In ancient Greek, the core connotation associated with the word was passion, not unlike the English definition. In modern Greek, however, the translation is closer to malice, something you’d label a false friendship. 

Empathy is one of the defining traits of mammals. Bonobos feel it. Dolphins feel it. In fact, empathy is even felt between different species. Although the formal evidence here is loose, there are a number of anecdotal stories, for example, about dolphins coming to the rescue of people who have been at risk of drowning, and at times, even gathering around to fend off shark attacks. There are ancient Greek myths, too, that tell of these creatures protecting sailors on their voyages across harsh seas.

The reason most commonly cited for the development of empathy is parental care. Young humans, in particular, are heavily reliant on the mother for survival for the first few years of life. They signal their internal state using their body language (smiling, crying, etc.). A parent, then, has to be attuned to these signals to ensure that the needs of the child are being met. 

The evolutionary benefits of this kind of interactive system are fairly clear. Empathy underlies much of our prosocial behavior. We all give off emotional energies at any given moment in time, and much of what allows us to connect easily and quickly is the ability to feel, judge, and harmonize with the emotional frequencies of other people in the same environment.

But like most ancient evolutionary processes of the brain, empathy also has its downsides. In fact, in the modern world we live in, one that is way different from the hunter and gatherer societies that we evolved these capacities for, empathy is the driver of perhaps more bad than good on a global scale. It is often shortsighted, unfairly judgemental, and it cares for one thing at the expense of something else, something different.

There are two key things to note about the context in which empathy likely evolved. The first is that empathy encourages immediate action. If your baby is crying somewhere behind you, you have to recognize that right away, and then you have to do what you need to fulfill the needs of that baby, whether that be getting it out of harm’s way, or simply feeding it. The second is that empathy is inherently kin-favored, meaning that it is biased towards either people who are related to you, or people who are like you in some other ideologically defined way. It functions to connect a tribe.

Of course, the fact that you should take immediate action to help a baby in need isn’t a bad thing, nor is the fact that we inherently place our relationships with each other in a hierarchical way, moving outwards from family and friends to tribes and other associations. The problem is that we are now in a different stage of civilization, under new conditions of survival, and there is a difference between responding to a baby’s cry in a dangerous jungle relative to the safety of your home, and there is also a difference between forging relationships in small tribes relative to a hyperconnected world, where our collective moral code postulates that every life matters.

In the modern world, instead of empathy bringing us together and helping us collectively thrive, in practice, it ends up leading to hasty decisions about problems with complex causes and effects, and it ends up only recognizing the feelings of people who are most like us in some way.

The viral Kony 2012 campaign was a perfect example of a version of this. It began with a short documentary about some of the human rights abuses committed by the leader of a guerrilla group in Uganda, and the documentary wanted to raise awareness for these crimes and have the leader put away by the end of the year. Naturally, people watched it, and they were moved by it, and they shared it, and it soon became the most-watched video on YouTube. It was talked about for a few weeks, but then a few months later, everybody went about their business, completely forgetting that it had even happened. Everybody was happy to empathize and be outraged, but none of these people understood the geopolitics of the region, and pretty much none of them had anything to say about it 12 months later.

For things like this, of course, any and all awareness is good on some level. And maybe it was net positive overall. But it’s a lot easier to feel strong, momentary emotions than it is to take the right kind of action. And in a complex world, it’s actions that make a lasting impact, and the wrong kind of awareness and outrage can just as well cause harm as it can be good.

Let’s take another example. People often wonder how regular civilians could have put their support behind Hitler and the Nazi party and work for his cause in the concentration camps during the Second World War. Perhaps many of these people were deeply wicked people, but given the sheer number of them it took to commit those collective atrocities, we know that many seemingly regular people played a role, too. The philosopher Hannah Arendt famously attributed this to what she called “the banality of evil.” 

They were, in fact, regular people. They had families they loved, many of them enjoyed the simple things in life, and they contributed to their communities. But they had convinced themselves they were following orders — that they were doing what they were told. And in doing that, the empathy that they likely felt for their wives and their husbands and their kids simply stopped extending to those in the concentration camps, because they were different, and empathy while great at recognizing those similar to us can easily shut itself off to those who are different, because empathy is inherently judgemental, only really recognizing those who are like us.

People who base their morality on empathy generally feel like they have good intentions, but the messiness and the contradictions of the world show themselves in their actions and their behaviors. They are quick to react to a picture of a starving child, but they are just as quick to forget about it. They are quick to recognize the experience of someone who is a part of their ideological tribe, but they will completely ignore the complex experience of those on the opposite side, hating them and resenting them for exactly the same reasons that they feel the other side hates and resents them.

The great 20th-century philosopher Bertrand Russell used the word sympathy when addressing what a fuller kind of morality and sensitivity should look like, which has a slightly different meaning to the kind of empathy discussed here, but the core point remains the same. In his own words:

“First, to feel sympathy even when the sufferer is not an object of special affection; secondly, to feel it when the suffering is merely known to be occurring, not sensibly present. The second of these enlargements depends mainly upon intelligence. It may only go so far as sympathy with suffering which is portrayed vividly and touchingly, as in a good novel; it may, on the other hand, go so far as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics. This capacity for abstract sympathy is as rare as it is important.”

What we should strive for isn’t an impassioned empathy that is at the whims of the biased emotions that some cute photo or a family member can arise in us. Rather, we should aim for this abstract sympathy; something closer to what can be called compassion. Compassion isn’t judgemental, nor does it lose itself in an emotional frenzy. Compassion is simply seeing the suffering of a person, or a group of people, merely as it is — not immediately labeling it good or bad, just observing. That includes seeing and recognizing even people you hate, people who have harmed you, and people who do despicable things. None of this excuses bad behavior, of course, but it at least tries to rationally understand it before it picks a side and makes a judgment.

If you are going to rely on empathy, then you should be just as ready to break into tears every time you read a random, hard statistic about what is still bad in the world as you do when you watch a documentary with special effects and a film crew hired specifically to make you cry. Again, we are all human, and we intuitively respond to these things, and that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s morally important to be aware when it occurs.

Caring for one another is one of the most beautiful things we do as human beings. It’s a profound source of meaning for all of us. But true care extends beyond just emotional highs and lows, and it extends beyond just seemingly good intentions. True morality and true sensitivity are about how you care — your actions, your behaviors, and ultimately, your impact.

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