In Theory: What is America's empathy quotient?

A New York Times columnist is wondering: Where is the love?

Nicholas D. Kristoff says there's a “profound lack of empathy” these days, after columns he wrote about food stamp recipients, prison inmates and those without health insurance drew scornful responses from readers.

After acknowledging that some people end up in jail or poverty because of their own bad decisions, he asks: “Do we really think that kids should go hungry if they have criminal parents? Should a little boy not get a curved spine treated properly because his dad is a deadbeat?”

Kristoff refers to a study done at Princeton in which researchers discovered that many people, when faced with images of poverty, react as if what they're looking at are things, not people. “Her analysis suggests that Americans sometimes react to poverty not with sympathy but with revulsion,” he says.

Q: Do you agree? Is there a lack of empathy for those in poverty or other bad situations these days?

I’m not sure that we’re less empathetic now than previously, but a couple of initial observations come to mind. In difficult times, we sometimes excuse ourselves from helping others by thinking “Things are tough for me, too!” Also, when we’re confronted with others’ need it touches our conscience to do something for them. This pressure can be overwhelming and one way we improperly cope with it is to dehumanize others and their plight.

Lack of empathy is a sign of sinful sickness in the human heart. Jesus warned us that false religions, wars, famines, earthquakes and society’s hatred of godly people will propagate shortly before his return and the end of this age. Then he added: “And because lawlessness is increased, most people's love will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12).

If we don’t love God and if his love doesn’t dwell within us we will not love others as we should. 1 John 4:20 puts it this way: “If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” The answer to mankind’s lack of empathy is to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ and to let his love richly live in us. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church


Perhaps. But maybe we're really no worse than those who came before us. I am reminded of the passage in Isaiah that comes from around 550 B.C. In Is. 53: 2-3, there is mention of a rather plain-looking individual (“he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”), and the Scripture goes on to say that this fellow was “one from whom others hide their faces” and that “he was despised, and we held him of no account.”

Some say this passage predicts Jesus; maybe it does and maybe it doesn't. But what is obvious is that the people of Isaiah's time had just as much trouble looking at unpleasant things or people as we do. In the generation of the 1960s, Peter, Paul, and Mary sang, “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?”

Our lack of empathy isn't excused, of course. It's just that we are all human beings, through and through, whether we lived 500 years before Jesus or 2,000 years afterward. It is hard to embrace what we perceive as ugliness in others. Our various faith traditions tell us, of course, to feed the hungry and house the homeless and heal the sick — but simply because our faith traditions tell us what we should do doesn't make it any easier to reach out to our fellow human beings, children of God, everyone. So when an ordinary Albanian girl decides to minister to the people of Calcutta and goes by the name of Mother Theresa, we marvel.

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge


After reading some of the responses to Kristoff’s articles — someone called a man with colon cancer a “lame brain doofus,” for instance — I think we’re talking about two different things. A lack of empathy is one thing; stupid meanness is another.

The revulsion response to poverty and disease is nothing new. People’s response to the famous Suffering Servant figure of Isaiah, later equated with Christ, sounds much like the Princeton study reactions:

“There were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man, and his form marred beyond human likeness. … He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 52:14; 53:2-3).

The revulsion response is probably some built-in, evolutionary thing — a survival-based attraction to the strong ones of the herd, or a life-correcting warning to avoid disease, or something. It might even be a built-in ethical component: Maybe we’re meant to see suffering as intolerable, in order to be galvanized to help.

But the nasty responses that Kristoff received, suggesting that poor people should be forced to send their children to orphanages, or that smokers deserve to get cancer — that’s not a lack of compassion; that’s a lack of civility. Or intelligence. Or kindness. Or a lack of all three.

We are in such an era of social nastiness in America these days that if Bertrand Russell could add a volume to his famous history series, our time might be named “The Age of Stupid Meanness.” Ironic, isn’t it, since we say we’re living in the era of the greatest explosion of knowledge and information ever seen on Earth?

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge


In the holiday story, “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge opines that the poverty-stricken ought to simply die and “decrease the surplus population.” What a despicable character, but by the end he repents and redeems himself. That’s when we like him, but we never consider ourselves as the unsympathetic early Scrooge.

Then there’s Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life;” he’ll get coal in his stocking. He would never help hungry kids, saying “They’re not my children!” Him we also despise — and pity. He would never know the happier generosity of George Bailey.

We annually revisit such tales to remind ourselves about priorities; to consider others, and to reflect on the state of our own souls. Today’s question is also stimulating to that end.

What may be stewing an unfortunate revulsion to the destitute, however, is the constant, overwhelming neediness; the perpetual hand-outstretched, sign-wielding beggars, the nonstop charity drives of every grocery store asking if we’d “like to help” their corporate charity. No? Grinch!

It may be getting to people, and they’re sickened by all the oppressive expectation. How many appeals must we answer with our limited resources, and how many tragic cases must we rescue in order to be considered caring? Nobody can support everything, so maybe it’s all charity overload and disdain for social manipulation that’s dulling America’s concern.

The late atheist Ayn Rand said “I do not consider [charity] a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty.” If I were atheist, championing “survival of the fittest,” I’d agree. But because of God I am virtuously compelled and morally duty-bound. Christ said, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mat 25:40 NIV). How can I not do for Jesus, especially at Christmas? It’s his birthday, remember?

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


I agree that there is a growing lack of empathy for the poor in the U.S.

Some unhelpful comments quoted by Kristoff reflect basic ignorance: “Why should I have to subsidize someone else's child?” News flash to this person, other taxpayers subsidize tax benefits you get, ones we may not personally approve of either. Conversely, many of us wholeheartedly support subsidizing needy children with our taxes.

Punishing poor children for their parents' alleged character flaws by scrimping on their health and education is cruel, illogical and damaging to our economy and social order. As Kristoff points out, “luck, biography, brain chemistry and genetics” all play into poverty, not just bad choices.

Other important factors in poverty are socioeconomic policies, and in the U.S. the poor and their allies are at a disadvantage compared to rich individuals and their corporations, lobbyists and lawyers in influencing these policies.

Genuine empathy demands correcting structural inequities and redirecting our economy to benefit the poor, as well as the working and middle classes, who are struggling today to stay out of poverty.

Roberta Medford


Columnist Nicholas Kristoff is right. There is a “profound lack of empathy” in society today. However, this behavior has been displayed in human character for thousands of years. We seem to be incredibly myopic when it comes to our own failings and shortcomings, and to be particularly acute in observing faults in others.

Jesus warned against this tendency in Matthew 7:3-5, when he cautioned, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye, and ignore the plank in your own eye?” He told his listeners, “You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” Jesus makes it clear our primary responsibility is to deal with our own faults, not pass judgment on one another.

He dramatically illustrated this when the religious leaders presented him with a woman caught in adultery and wanted to know how to handle her case (John 8:1–11). Under Mosaic law at the time, the penalty for adultery was death by stoning, and a willing crowd had already gathered. Jesus wrote with his finger in the dirt before replying, “Let any person without sin cast the first stone.” With that comment, the crowd dispersed, and Jesus told the woman, “Go and do not sin anymore.”

There has always been speculation about what Jesus wrote. Personally, I think he wrote the Ten Commandments, and every person there knew they had violated one or more of them. It is very easy to look down on another person who struggles with an issue where we are competent. But we need to stay focused on our own challenges and offer our neighbor the same empathy and understanding we implicitly extend to ourselves.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church


I am sad to hear that there seems to be a growing lack of empathy for the poor and marginalized in our country today. How can we profess to be caring human beings if we do not have compassion for those who are in need and think only of ourselves? As I have written before, we Unitarian Universalists believe in the principles of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” Certainly there are people who are responsible for their own dire circumstances. But many, including children, suffer from conditions over which they have no control or from which they cannot escape without help.

It seems to me that many of those who would judge others as undeserving of help have not experienced the kinds of situations as those whom they are judging as unworthy. In fact, a recent article by Nicholas Kristoff has indicated that, according to research, the poorest 20% of our population donates a greater percentage of their incomes to charity than the top 20% does. That suggests to me that those who have gotten what they consider to be their “due” are more willing to leave those who have little or nothing to suffer — believing that the “haves” deserve their good fortune while the “have-nots” deserve nothing.

Even Unitarian Charles Dickens’ character Ebenezer Scrooge was able to find empathy in his heart for the less fortunate in “A Christmas Carol.” Should we do less? My hope is that during this holiday season and beyond more people will recognize and act from their better natures, reaching out to help others. All of us need love, food, clothing, shelter and healthcare. And so, I say with Tiny Tim: “God bless us, every one.”

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta

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