The Importance of Empathy (from a Robot)


My life partner Igor calls me his robot. I’m an INTJ, a libertarian, and fairly privileged, all of which come together to produce someone who is not naturally a bastion of empathy. It’s been through studying marketing that I’ve come to learn about what causes people to act. It turns out that empathy is one of those things that people need to see in you before they will consider doing what you ask.

At the same time, delving deeper into the world of libertarian politics has shown me that empathy is something libertarians could learn a thing or two about. Libertarians have actually been empirically shown to have lower levels of empathy than people on the left or right.

So I read “The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy” in the New Yorker, with keen interest. The piece seemed to help explain why libertarians sometimes seem to have trouble with empathy (and why that might not always be a bad thing).

So why aren’t libertarians seen as empathetic? “The key to engaging empathy is what has been called ‘the identifiable victim effect.’” Perhaps it’s not that libertarians aren’t empathetic, it’s that we, like most people, empathize best with victims who look like us. Perhaps this helps explain why so many libertarians spend more time talking about marginal tax rates than the drug war.

Tax rates disproportionately affects us (our incomes are higher than average, making our tax liabilities larger), the drug war primarily affects them (libertarians are largely white and middle class, drug war victims are largely low-income and minority). Even in the context of the drug war, the messaging is much more focused on middle-class white medical marijuana patients and the harmlessness of marijuana than on the victims of no-knock raids and the effect of mass incarceration on low-income communities.

However, the article also suggests that our lack of concern for victims who aren’t us helps lead us to better policy recommendations. By focusing less on the “who” (victims of a particular situation, occurrence or policy) and more on the “what” (actual effects of proposed solutions in practice), I think libertarians many times come to better conclusions than our more empathetic peers.

For example, libertarians have long been skeptical about the actual consequences of empathy-driven foreign aide programs:

In the broader context of humanitarianism, as critics like Linda Polman have pointed out, the empathetic reflex can lead us astray. When the perpetrators of violence profit from aid—as in the “taxes” that warlords often demand from international relief agencies—they are actually given an incentive to commit further atrocities. It is similar to the practice of some parents in India who mutilate their children at birth in order to make them more effective beggars. The children’s debilities tug at our hearts, but a more dispassionate analysis of the situation is necessary if we are going to do anything meaningful to prevent them.

Same with dead children laws:

On many issues, empathy can pull us in the wrong direction. The outrage that comes from adopting the perspective of a victim can drive an appetite for retribution. (Think of those statutes named for dead children: Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, Caylee’s Law.)

Libertarians have long railed against well-meaning but problematic legislation that stems from a sympathetic victim.

The article states the problem well: “There’s a larger pattern here. Sensible policies often have benefits that are merely statistical but victims who have names and stories.”

And so it is with libertarians, who propose sensible policies, but continually fail to offer an emotional hook other than “it works” to help sell them.

More is required than a good product to get sales. While our product, libertarian policy recommendations, is good, our sales and marketing could certainly use some work. Empathy is, according to sales expert Jonathan Farrington, “absolutely vital for sustained success within any sales relationship, where you are trying to persuade another—often a stranger—to make a decision they may not even have considered prior to your meeting.” Sales coach Evan Carmichael says, “It is clear that it is critical for a sales person to have or to develop a high level of empathy to have great success.”

So the challenge then for libertarians is to continue to develop policies unclouded by empathy, yet develop enough visible empathy to sell them.