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Extreme poverty is largely an unmitigated evil and one of the most critical global emergencies of our time. We could (rather swiftly) use our vast collective wealth to lift every single person on earth out of poverty and give them a chance at a decent human life. This is within our power as members of the most affluent and privileged societies the world has ever known, but personally, we need to make money first in order to be able to give it away. And then there are all of our personal desires, which money is specially capable of satisfying.
Defining our terms before we begin, we may say that empathy is “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective, placing yourself in their shoes, and feeling what they are feeling.”
It’s safe to say, then, that when you empathize with someone, you want what’s best for them. I don’t deny that empathy causes people to feel for the suffering of others and inspires good people to take action in order to benefit those they care about.
But since life is complicated, and I have some space to fill, that’s not the whole story.
I believe that the existence of empathy is a big part of the reason that helping others is within our self-interest as well. It’s not that we should never empathize for anyone, or that we should always empathize with everyone; it’s that empathy can be an excellent servant, but empathy should never be our master.
In the final analysis, it’s not that empathy is always a bad thing; it’s that its moral negatives outweigh its positives. We tend to ignore the colossal suffering of others in order to provide more limited support to the people we care about. Reasoning correctly, we can imagine a better way.