Does Power Displace Empathy In Government?

Power = the ability or official capacity to exercise control

Empathy = identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, emotions

 The U. S. President, Congress, and the Supreme Court all have official capacity to exercise control. Does this power influence their empathy?  Should it? These thoughts occurred to me while reading Robert Burton’s 2013 book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind.  Burton reported that in choosing a Supreme Court Justice recently President Obama said, “I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with peoples’ hopes and struggles, as essential ingredients for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.”

Michael Steele, the republican National Committee Chairman at the time, said: “I don’t need some justice up there feeling bad for my opponent because of their life circumstances or their condition and short-changing me and my opportunity to get fair treatment under the law.”

This reminds me of my Common Ground and Common Good blog where I said self-interest was the enemy of anything common. It seems to me that self-interest is the antithesis of empathy. How is someone in a power position expected to make a just, fair decision? Does power increase self-interest and decrease empathy? Is empathy better than self-interest? If so, why? This makes me wonder:  What is a just decision?  When is being fair fair?

I suspect the answers to all of these questions depend on one’s “life circumstances or condition”.  And they depend on one’s relative position of power. Burton’s following conclusion impressed me. What do you think?

Though this is pure speculation, I suspect that this fundamental difference

in how we think about fairness is a critical component

of the global increase in vicious partisan politics.

One man’s fairness is another’s poison.

He suggests that how we decide on the nature of this abstract concept is likely to determine the future of our civilization. Does our choice depend on power vs. empathy?

This entry was posted in Democracy in Danger. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Gene Unger says:

    What did you think of my answer?

    Sent from my iPad

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