Against Empathy – how the power of empathy has created a monster

4 mins read

By Naomi Boulter

Imagine walking through a bustling street. You’re excited to begin a volunteer opportunity working with disadvantaged children, rescued wildlife, or other notable cause that tugs at your heartstrings. You idly check your phone to see that the crowdfunding initiative you donated money to has almost reached its target to buy a house for a good family having a hard time. You also donate to an established non-governmental organisation (NGO) that debits money regularly from your account. They appear to be spending it wisely from the emails you receive about how they are saving forests and oceans.

Fast forward to the next month. You just arrived back home with the heady glow of someone who tirelessly looked after disadvantaged children or cleaned animal pens. Reconnecting with the news cycle, a headline catches your eye from the list of notifications on your phone which reads Beloved green NGO reportedly investing in mining of fossil fuels. How could this be? Your subscription donating to this NGO is meant to go towards saving the forests and oceans. Another disappointment is added to the list when you spot the crowd funding initiative you contributed to has had the funds squandered by its organisers. That good family is without a house over their heads. It’s terrible! You feel ill. The world around you unravels, but the biggest shock comes in the form of another news article exposing the volunteer organisation you worked for as a sham, run by criminals profiting off tourists like you. What has the world come to when empathetic people are targeted this way?

It’s time to lift the lid on a new economy based on a global power. That power is empathy.

But why is such a virtuous thing under attack? What’s unique about empathy compared to other forms of power is that it’s ubiquitous. You can choose how you wield it. Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Support at Yale University, suggests empathy is more influential than you would expect “Empathy leads us astray… When it comes to moral motivation, empathy can be used as a tool.” With globalization and technology providing easy access to helping others, you are also exposed to the possibility of being manipulated by criminals, institutions or your neighbour. This is a highly organised, professional industry ready to exploit you through the power of empathy.

Take volunteer tourism, which is on the bucket list for many of those wanting to make their altruistic mark on the world. Terry Donnelly, founder of The Red Lotus Foundation in Vietnam, is aware of the dark side of volunteering in Southeast Asia: “I had an encounter with a local volunteer organisation in Hanoi that was acting in an inappropriate manner regarding volunteer fees and programs, this organisation was shut down six months later after volunteer complaints to the government.” Donnelly founded The Red Lotus Foundation because: “[I] thought I could do it better and operate in a more ethical manner than the organisations I had encountered.” He is aware that people’s goodwill to become volunteers carries a risk that they will “be taken advantage of through inflated fees and empty promises of programs, in other words [the programs] not being what you thought you would be getting.” This can be said of certain orphanages in Cambodia. In 2011, a UNICEF report highlighted that this lucrative industry housed over 70% of children that were not orphans. Instead, Cambodian families sent away their children after promises that they would be fed and given an education at these so-called orphanages. Since the 2011 report, there are now more orphanages in Cambodia which can suggest that appeals for donations are coming thick and fast from empathetic donors.

If volunteer tourism is not your thing, then donating to crowdfunding ventures might be a noble cause. These types of ventures begin with an idea or an event that evokes the outpouring of donations from individuals. Financial targets are announced and emotional campaigns containing videos, photos and stories are posted online. The difficulty in supporting these causes is that they are based on trust. You give money in good faith that a worthwhile product can be produced, or that a life can be improved. However, trust can be misused, as was the case for homeless man Johnny Bobbitt in the USA. Bobbitt assisted Kate McClure, who’s car had run out of gas, giving her his last $20 to buy fuel. This good deed warmed McClure and her boyfriend Mark D’Amico, who then decided to raise funds through GoFundMe to provide Bobbitt with a comfortable life. The campaign certainly touched the hearts of many, resulting in a total of US$400,000 being raised. What happened next caused public outrage. The couple went silent after the closing date of the campaign, with Bobbitt receiving a fraction of the total, which is largely reported missing.

From trusting volunteer organisations to crowdfunding ventures, it seems that in-depth research needs to be undertaken before considering donating to NGOs. The Nature Conservatory, World Wildlife Fund and Conservation Fund are three NGOs named by Naomi Klein to have connections with oil and gas companies. Klein, the provocative author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, exposes these global NGOs in her book by highlighting their investments, donations received and board members’ connections with fossil fuel companies. Undoubtedly, the decision to pursue these actions rested with the leadership of the NGOs and not with their members or donors. To know that organisations who aim for doing good are not following the very mission they promote is more than a misuse of trust. It’s a misuse of the power of empathy.

To conclude, the power of empathy has been utilised for profit by criminals, institutions and anyone else on the street. Nevertheless, that’s not to say well-meaning intention to wield this power must be negative. Paul Bloom suggests that a healthier alternative is if “we give up on empathy and become rational deliberators motivated (sic) by compassion and care for others.” In other words, the same gratification without the price tag.

Naomi Boulter is an exchange student from Australia, where she studies an International Relations degree. When she is away from her natural habitat of the kitchen, she is found watching reality TV, practising yoga and trying to study the Swedish language with a cup of green tea constantly glued in her hands. She is looking forward to absorbing vitamin D when she returns home and snuggling with her cat affectionately named “Spaghetti”.

Illustrator: Marina Skovgaard Dokken

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