Much has been made in art therapy of the discovery of mirror neurons in the brain as confirmation that empathy is real and that creative work with others engages those neurons and hence creates empathy. Implicit for many of us is that empathy leads to care, compassion and perhaps even right action. Recently in the New York Times, David Brooks discusses the limits of empathy. Brooks makes the case that feeling the pain of others does not lead automatically to appropriate action on their behalf or even to any action. He cites Nazi guards who wept while shooting Jewish mothers and children and the participants in the Milgram experiments who experienced anguish but continued to administer what they believed to be painful electric shocks because they were told to do so. What is it that disconnects an empathic feeling response which, in Brooks' words "..orients you toward moral action"from actually acting? Self concern. It seems that if we sense ourselves to be at risk or if we are unaccustomed to taking action and the thought of it arouses fear, we move along. It's one thing to get an email about a cause, be moved and make one more mouse click to sign a petition. It's another thing to wrestle with a code of conduct that we consciously live by. In fact, Brooks contends, feeling empathy has become a shortcut that allows us to feel virtuous while doing nothing to make change.
A researcher cited by David Brooks says that not only does empathy not usually impel right action, it actually can lead to wrong action. The staff of that agency are no doubt brimming with empathy. My colleague certainly agreed that it would be great to offer as much service to kids in need as possible, just not by breaking the law. She has an internal code of conduct that prevents her feeling of empathy to override her capacity to make moral judgments. It is the latter than allowed her to name the behavior she saw and refuse to participate.