My beef is with empathy in particular, with its role in decision making. Empathy has certain design features that do make it positive in certain restricted circumstances. If you and I are the only people on earth and you’re in pain and I can help you and make your pain go away, and I feel empathy toward you and so I make your life better, empathy has done something good. But the real world is nowhere near as simple. Empathy’s design failings have to do with the fact that it acts like a spotlight. It zooms you in. But spotlights only illuminate where you point them at, and for that reason empathy is biased.
I’m likely to feel empathy toward you, a handsome white guy, but somebody who is repulsive or frightening I don’t feel empathy for. I actually feel a lot less empathy for people who aren’t in my culture, who don’t share my skin color, who don’t share my language. This is a terrible fact of human nature, and it operates at a subconscious level, but we know that it happens. There’s dozens, probably hundreds, of laboratory experiments looking at empathy and they find that empathy is as biased as can be.
The second problem is the innumeracy. Empathy zooms me in on one but it doesn’t attend to the difference between one and 100 or one and 1,000. It’s because of empathy we often care more about a single person than 100 people or 1,000 people, or we care more about an attractive white girl who went missing than we do a 1,000 starving children who don’t look we do or live where we don’t live.
So it might feel good but empathy often leads us to make stupid and unethical decisions.