Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In a previous note, readers debated whether empathy was a necessary trait for political leaders. But how necessary is empathy to get through everyday life? One reader believes it’s essential:

Empathy is what allows us to navigate day by day. A human without empathy is a sociopath or a robot. The way empathy is discussed in the video is so flawed by mixing it with altruism, which is very different than empathy but is more closely aligned to the charity model discussed. And do not kid yourself: Altruism is a “what’s in it for me,” while empathy drives connections towards others.

Readers previously debated empathy versus altruism. But is the above reader right? Does not having empathy really make you a sociopath? To get at an answer, a reader flags a Psychology Today piece that details the difference between sociopathy and psychopathy:

Sociopaths tend to be nervous and easily agitated. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage. They are likely to be uneducated and live on the fringes of society, unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for very long. It is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others. Many sociopaths are able to form an attachment to a particular individual or group, although they have no regard for society in general or its rules. [...]

Psychopaths, on the other hand, are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to unsuspecting people.

A 2013 study covered by the BBC suggests that psychopaths may actually be able to “switch” empathy on and off. But back to Bloom, he touched on this issue in a 2013 piece for The New Yorker:

A race of psychopaths might well be smart enough to invent the principles of solidarity and fairness. (Research suggests that criminal psychopaths are adept at making moral judgments.) The problem with those who are devoid of empathy is that, although they may recognize what’s right, they have no motivation to act upon it. Some spark of fellow-feeling is needed to convert intelligence into action.

But a spark may be all that’s needed. Putting aside the extremes of psychopathy, there is no evidence to suggest that the less empathetic are morally worse than the rest of us. Simon Baron-Cohen observes that some people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, though typically empathy-deficient, are highly moral, owing to a strong desire to follow rules and insure that they are applied fairly.

Where empathy really does matter is in our personal relationships. Nobody wants to live like Thomas Gradgrind—Charles Dickens’s caricature utilitarian, who treats all interactions, including those with his children, in explicitly economic terms. Empathy is what makes us human; it’s what makes us both subjects and objects of moral concern. Empathy betrays us only when we take it as a moral guide.

Have something to add to the discussion? Say hello@theatlantic.com. Update from a reader, Johan Qin:

Really interesting video. My argument is that empathy is not bad, but can lead to bad long-term decisions (as Bloom argues) if not balanced out with reason and perspective.

My example is a mentally ill person. We should definitely have empathy for those who struggle and suffer. But having only empathy will not assist in helping that mentally ill person become better. Empathy must be balanced out with reason and perspective so we can make a decision about what to do. Empathy makes us care, but logic and compassion (like Bloom argues) results in real change.

Thus, while I think he makes an interesting argument, maybe Bloom should have used a different argument not as complicated and nuanced as the war on Iraq (although nonetheless, his argument on Iraq did make sense to me).

From reader Jim Elliott:

Through my work with people with autism (I was going to make the same point Bloom did about Simon Baron-Cohen’s research), I’ve come to the conclusion that empathy can be too much of a good thing. Some individuals with autism feel too much empathy but lack the wiring needed to turn it off. Sometimes, their sense of fairness is highly solipsistic, and sometimes they are the most generous defenders of others you’re likely to see. Other individuals with autism are, frankly, indistinguishable from sociopaths in their iteration. It is, as they say, a spectrum.

I have come to the belief that politics and corporatism reward high-functioning sociopathy (aka psychopathy). You need empathy to be able to connect to people, to sell yourself and your ideas. But in order to adequately administrate a large system, you need to be able to switch it off. You have to be able to embrace large-scale utilitarianism as required.  

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