Empathy for All?

I appreciate this post for asking us to deepen our own personal empathy. I’m thankful too this post undermines the tired definition of ‘rationality’ used in economics, a definition limited largely to income and wealth and quantifiable metrics about material conditions. People care about that, sure, and much more.

I have serious doubts, however, about the role of empathy in creating systems change. The Aeon video about empathy suggest if we were all better at empathizing across distance and time, we would find the political will to solve big problems like climate change. The narrative proposes an empathy museum so we could build our capacity to empathize. Let’s call this the ‘hearts and minds’ view.

I find more convincing organizer and philosopher Saul Alinsky’s view of people, and of how change happens. He says people are fundamentally self-interested. When they see their self interest clearly, they will act, and not before. Let’s call this the ‘self-interest’ view. Here is one of my favorite takes on this idea from 2016.

This view is informed by Marxism which, as I understand it, holds that the fundamental conflict between classes is irreconcilable. No amount of empathy can bridge that gap. So in politics, rather than asking people with lots of privilege to get better at empathizing, on the hope that they’ll support policies that will help those less fortunate, stand in solidarity with working class people on strike at GM or in Chicago classroom as they contest for power that will improve their lives.

The other day a friend and I were talking politics and Medicare for All came up. She’s a proud Democrat and liberal activist-type who works at corporate law firm. I told her I’m fully in favor of M4A. I currently don’t have health insurance (yikes) and know many others do not as well.

She said said she’s strongly opposed to M4A if it means abolishing private insurance. I asked her why, and she said because she doesn’t want to give up the plush health insurance plan her law firm offers her.

I’m pretty sure a Marxist analysis would put that directly in the ‘class-conflict’ category.

The dynamics of class interest are at the macro level. To be clear, I’m all for empathy at the personal level.

So with my friend, I want to take a hearts and minds approach, and share with her how that view affects my well-being personally, and how it’s hard for me to hear she would oppose a policy that would help me and other people without health insurance get access to health care. Since we have a strong friendship, I think I may be able to help her make that connection. Evidence suggests she may even shift her policy position.

At a macro level, rather than try to convince 100,000 people like my friends that they should give up what they have to help people who need it, through say, an empathy museum, I want to join a political coalition of people who stand to gain something from a change in the healthcare system such as M4A, and class conscious allies who feel their liberation is bound to mine, to make this happen.

Here’s my deep dive on understanding her reasons for opposing M4A.



  • Losing the health benefits free, unfettered access provides (e.g., seeing any doctor you want at any time)


  • Losing peace of mind current plan offers; trading that for uncertainty of how M4A would really work, what access to care it would grant her
  • As her taxes rise and her perceive quality of health insurance declines, she may call into question her life choices of working for a corporate law firm
  • She’s taken a stand against M4A; its passage and successful implementation may put as risk her certainty in her own political acumen


  • Her taxes will rise

Social status

  • Losing the prestige of having a fancy health insurance plan you can tell you friends about
  • Losing a valuable and scarce asset that may make her more desirable to future romantic partners (low co-pays are sexy 😉 )
  • Losing a valuable and scarce asset that may make her feel like she can prove herself to her parents
  • Her past stance against M4A may jeopardize how people perceive her political judgement


  • She does not think unemployed people and poor people (and friends with low-incomes) deserve full health insurance :/
  • She does not like the other policies people who support M4A support (e.g., higher minimum wage, wealth taxes)

7 thoughts on “Empathy for All?”

  1. Great post, Jonathan. Thank you. I had a long conversation with a friend last night about whether political change is possible or if we need to address each person/group’s self interest in order to really have change happen. I think he and I increasingly believe that change is more successful if it is economic (self-interest), instead of strictly political. Maybe that’s the incentive that CPA offers, too?


  2. Hi Jonathan. I really enjoyed your post and I also really enjoyed the article you linked about Youngstown, Ohio. If she were to do the same exercise from her point of view and trying to understand yours, what do you think she would uncover?


  3. Low co-pays are sexy? LOL!!!!!! Thank you for the levity, Jonathan, and thank you for the way you thoughtfully distinguish between micro and macro level interests, and for your thoughtful layout of her point of view. I am curious to know whether you were able to share this summary with her? If she heard herself in your voice, would even that change her mind?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jonathan – I love the framing you used for this post and the distinction you made between empathy in personal relationships vs systems change. You seem to have set the stage for an insightful exercise! As Juan Francisco and Sheila allude to – it would be interesting to ask your friend to provide her reasons for each of the categories you outlined and compare your two sets of responses. To take it a step further, it would also be interesting to know your justification for your “opposing” view, and then ask her to complete the exercise for you! Talk about rational, I wonder how much “sense” could be made of the exercise. If the exercise reveals a mutual understanding, does that affirm the knowledge people have of each other in close relationships? If it reveals completely disparate views, is there a lesson there? How much of empathy is about guessing?


  5. Jonathan,

    Great post. Thank you.

    And I am grateful that others have provided some thought provoking questions — I’m going to comment upon my different take on the empathy museum. I see some merit in it — not as fast acting as joining with other like-minded people to bring about real change (although of course, describing that as being ‘fast’ is ridiculous, i know!). I think that in the long run what we need as a species is to evolve our consciousness. And museums are places that can help bring that about.

    I suspect you are familiar with Franciscan priest Richard Rohr. I only learned about him from listening to a Krista Tippett interview of him. I was struck by his critique of our current religions – he says they have failed us because they have failed to evolve and do the thing that they are supposed to do …. expand human consciousness. I think it’s true that most of our Western religions spout that humans are the ultimate expression of God’s creation and even those religions that embrace evolution, act as if it is something that applies to other species, not to humans. That just can’t be true.

    I’m of the mind that we must evolve our consciousness to bring about the changes we seek.
    (Please forgive me for not posing questions. I’m so sleepy and can’t engage my brain to that level of sophistication!)


  6. Hi Jonathan! I,too, really enjoyed your post. In fact, if it was an option, I would heart

    “At a macro level, rather than try to convince 100,000 people like my friends that they should give up what they have to help people who need it, through say, an empathy museum, I want to join a political coalition of people who stand to gain something from a change in the healthcare system such as M4A, and class conscious allies who feel their liberation is bound to mine, to make this happen.” 🙂

    You once worked in the world of corporate consulting, which I’m guessing came with its own menu of plush benefits. Yet, you made the leap into organizing and economic instability, leaving behind some of the lifestyle privileges that you would otherwise have maintained. Does your own experience help you understand your friend any better? What motivated YOU to take the leap? What motivates you to stay in a role in which you don’t have health insurance? How, if at all, does understand why you’ve made different choices than your friend help you better understand how you might influence her or others like her to see things differently?


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