It seems odd to debate whether it’s a good thing for a person to possess empathy; yet that has become the core issue leading up to President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
Interestingly, debating empathy has exposed the root ideology of fundamentalism, whether it’s found in “strict constructionist” interpretations of the law or in religious contexts. It has also exposed the underlying misogyny within the conservative position.
When announcing Justice Souter’s resignation, Obama promised that he would choose a nominee to the high court who would employ empathy, “an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.” Earlier in his career, the president stated that five percent of Supreme Court cases come down to the heart of the judge and his or her broader vision for the country; this requires the judge to have an ability to interpret the experience of others and use that information to make sound decisions. Obama has been consistent in arguing that empathy is necessary to be an effective judge, an idea that influenced his votes against justices Alito and Roberts as Illinois’ junior senator.
After the Souter announcement, conservatives immediately attacked Obama’s requirement, stating that empathy was “code” for a judge who would legislate from the bench (a position satirized by one observer who noted that Jesus himself, a noted proponent of empathy, would have been opposed by the GOP as well). They’ve taken a fresh new idea and wrapped it in the lexicon of the same old culture wars. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell stated that Obama wanted a judge with “perceived sympathy for certain groups or individuals.” Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele argued that empathy gets in the way of justice, saying he does not want “some justice up there feeling bad for my opponent.”
Empathy has been defined in multiple ways, and it is telling that conservatives favor “feeling”-based definitions that conflate empathy with the notion of sympathy. By shifting the focus to sympathy and emotion, conservatives seek to devalue empathy—making it seem soft, sensitive, and freewheeling. Definitions of empathy by leading psychological scholars, on the other hand, identify empathy as an ability to interpret the experience of another person; to walk in someone else’s shoes. This is not the same as sympathy, pity, or over-identifying with the other person.
It is more than ironic that the discussion of empathy occurs at a time when Obama has chosen a woman for the court. Because empathy is often improperly defined in terms of feeling and caring, it is more closely associated with women (who are, according to social prejudices, more emotional). This bias is used to question women’s ability to make effective, tough and fair-minded decisions. In comparison, so called “rational” approaches to adjudication tend to be associated with men, who are supposedly more “objective.” And the conservative critique (of Obama’s insistence on empathy in his nominee) is no doubt influenced by a wariness of the presence of women in roles of power and authority in our country.
Rules-Based Personalities, Fundamentalism, and Empathy
Several different types of psychological assessments claim to measure the empathy of an individual. Some include psychometric scoring of self-reported information related to values, motives, and behaviors, while others measure observed behaviors. In most validation studies on empathy (such as a recent study here of medical military personnel) women do tend to score higher on empathy than their male counterparts. Based on these findings, women have greater potential for effectively interpreting the experience of those they interact with.
Curiously, some assessments measure empathy using an instrument created in the 1940s to gauge personalities inclined toward fascism (see The Authoritarian Personality, 1950). The psychometric conclusions associated with instruments based on “The F Scale” show that individuals with less empathy tend to see the world through an authoritarian lens. They are “black and white” about life in general, and develop a rules-based ideology that directs their decisions and interactions with others. This kind of rigidity corresponds to conservatives’ inclination toward individuals who use a strict constructionist interpretation of the law. From this perspective, the law is read with a “civil” fundamentalism that is strict and unaffected by the current context.
Fundamentalism in religion demonstrates a similar type of rigidity when it comes to interpreting Scripture or church law; it is concerned with sustaining a carefully-prescribed and ordered way of life. This often causes fundamentalists to lack the ability to empathize with or “stand in the shoes” of other people, especially when the experiences or circumstances of the other people do not square with the way things are “meant to be.” Instead of seeking to understand the lived and felt experiences of other people, fundamentalists often try to enforce conformity on them. Empathy does not serve this process; it has little utility.
Meanwhile, progressive thinkers in religion are exploring empathy as a valuable trait for expanding connectivity through the understanding of context. Feminist religious writers like Lucinda A. Stark Huffaker argue that the development of empathy increases clarity in one’s experience of self, one’s relationship to God, and one’s connection to others and the world. Huffaker believes that empathy is the key to managing and celebrating the differences between individuals and groups, and provides the opportunity to build bridges.
The debate over empathy points to the importance of ideology when it comes to ethics and law. A person’s perspective on the world is still the greatest influence on understanding and final judgments. Despite the claims of conservatives and fundamentalists alike, there is no purely objective, rational, decision-making process.
Here Comes the Judge
Exposing the distaste for empathy among conservatives may be one of this president’s shrewdest moves yet. After all, most people would not say that empathy is a bad trait for a person to possess; Obama reveals the foolishness of hard-line and reactionary approaches to life and politics in a pluralistic democracy. Would any of us want to stand before a judge, be treated by a doctor, or seek the advice of a preacher who has no empathy?
The problem of low empathy became an enormously popular topic when Daniel Goleman released the highly successful book Emotional Intelligence about a decade ago. The basis of his theory is that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ for predicting success in life, and is essential for personal development; it includes “social awareness” or the ability to sense and respond to the emotions of another person.
We can expect that, regardless of who is finally confirmed to replace Justice Souter, the hearings will include multiple questions about his or her empathy. Ultimately, the focus on the capability of this judge to demonstrate empathy is not only a winning strategy—it will lead to a stronger Supreme Court.