Empathy or Truth?

Have you noticed the number of advertisements that rely on sappiness to sell ordinary products like air fresheners, razors, soft drinks, and soap? Creating an emotional connection between a product and a customer is a powerful sales technique. The same is true of ideas. Humans seem to be hard-wired to respond to emotion over sound reason, and so emotional appeals often hide serious error. With few exceptions, the greatest theological blunders of modern Christianity are emotion driven. That is especially true as the church struggles to maintain Biblical moral standards in a society in open rebellion against God. And, once again, new philosophies on gender, sex, and morality aren’t usually furthered by convincing argument and evidence, but by emotions. Often these emotional tactics are disguised to look very reasonable, and it’s our job to call them out.

My case study for emotional manipulation disguised as reason is this video about empathy from the Lifehacker website. On its face, it seems like a bit of good, commonsense advice for self-improvement. After all, who but a social brute would have a problem with empathy? But this short video has some very big problems. It begins with the declaration that “we all live in our own realities” which are the only ones that we can “truly know.” In that small statement are hidden some very big worldview assumptions, and it appears that perhaps they’ve confused the perception of reality with reality itself. Not a fantastic start. Much of the video, in truth, contains solid practical advice for engaging with people of differing points of view. I could even get on board with the end goal of “challeng[ing] prejudice” – if I know what they mean by prejudice. However, the sure sign that something is amiss is the idea that we ought to be “expand[ing] our moral universe,” so that we won’t “draw lines in the sand that prevent us from growing.” Now we realize that there is something more going on here than simply an attempt to get people to behave humanely to each other. The video is trying to use empathy as a method of shifting its audience’s perception of what constitutes truth. It makes an epistemic (having to do with the nature of knowledge) claim, inside an emotional wrapper.

Empathy is an important trait for each one of us to embrace, but it’s a very poor method for discovering truth. Consider for example the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and the trial of George Zimmerman, back in 2012. Both the prosecution and the defense attempted to paint each man in turn as an ordinary person caught up in tragic circumstances outside his control. And, it worked. Most people picked their side based upon the man with which they most empathized. But you would need something more had you been on the jury. You might have felt genuine empathy for both, but the only thing that mattered is what really happened. How did the defendant’s actions measure up to the law?

Secular culture appeals to empathy and inclusivity as a principle for pushing Christians to abandon objective morality, because while it requires no rational defense, it taps into a whole host of powerful emotions such as the desire to be kind, the desire to believe the best about loved ones, or the simple desire to be perceived as progressive. However, as truth-determining principles, empathy and inclusivity are rationally absurd. First, they commit the fallacy of the golden mean, which incorrectly assumes that within a plurality of perspectives, the truth must be a compromise between them all. However, reality isn’t determined by democratic means. It is very much possible (indeed likely) that the vast majority of opinions aren’t even a little true. Second, the principle is self-defeating. If I believe that the correct view is one that doesn’t exclude anyone, then I am being exclusive of those who aren’t inclusive. Therefore, I’ve become exclusive myself, and must therefore be excluded… Dizzy yet? Finally, no one actually believes that every other person’s opinions, experiences, and ideas deserve to be counted. This principle is only applied when convenient. If you doubt me, watch the empathy video again and imagine that the person you are speaking to is Jeffrey Dahmer.

The appeal to empathy has been a powerful tool in the effort to get Christians to abandon Biblical morality, because it mixes a great deal of truth with just enough falsehood to be destructive. When we struggle with watching our loved-ones choose sinful lifestyles, we want them to be “okay.” I have lost track of the number of stories I’ve heard that go something like, “I used to think homosexuality was wrong, but then my brother came out and I realized that he’s just an ordinary guy.” Or, “I used to think that transgenderism was wrong, but then I got to know my cousin and saw the struggle that she has, and realized that there is no way that God could want her to be anything but what she is on the inside.” These are conclusions drawn from empathy, not truth, and they represent a very nice, but terribly mistaken individual!

Empathy is a virtue that all believers ought to embrace in the example of Christ, but we should never allow it to compete with God’s Word when deciding moral standards. Christ provided the greatest example of empathy when He came to earth to experience life from a human perspective, but He came to proclaim truth to the enslaved, not to bend moral law because He felt sorry for us. Empathy allows us to relate others’ struggles to our own, and encourages patience. Understanding another person’s beliefs from their own perspective keeps us from making incorrect assumptions about them, and that insight is important to understanding how best to reach them with Christ’s love. But it doesn’t change what is true. We don’t live in our own “moral universe” to be molded by a plurality of opinions. While our perspectives of reality may be altered by our biases, we must never forget that truth (reality) is the final measure. Objective morality draws its own lines in the sand, and we all get to decide which side we end up on. It is the opposite of love to attempt to obscure those lines because we don’t want a person drowning in sin to feel bad about themselves.

Our culture thrives on the new, the inclusive, and the pluralistic. As believers, we constantly risk being painted as outdated heartless bigots that don’t care about others. We should do everything we can through God’s grace to make sure that isn’t true, while understanding that true love never encourages another person to destroy her life and eternal soul for immediate pleasure. The true reflection of Christ’s example is that we don’t condemn, but we come alongside those who are in bondage to sin and show them that there is a new and better life in Jesus Christ.

–Thomas Hersman