One of the main ways we can reduce the acrimony in our society is to stop proposing that government should solve all our problems. Specifically, regardless of our political orientation, we should shy away from “coercive legislation,” that is, laws that either prohibit or fund through redistribution the goals and values we support. 1
A second way for us to reduce needless argumentation is to shy away from logical fallacies in our discussions. Ad hominem, straw man, and genetic fallacies are so common yet so unfruitful. But there is a fourth fallacy that has risen in prominence which I also find illegitimate – the empathy fallacy.
What is the empathy fallacy?
The argument goes like this: “If you are not part of the group you are criticizing or affecting, you do not have legitimate grounds on which to stand because you cannot empathize with them.”
Interestingly, this idea overlaps with the popular theory of oppression known as “intersectionality.” 2 3 Essentially, since people are multifaceted, oppressed minorities overlap and must be considered as a whole. So for example, we can’t consider women’s issues or racial minorities merely individually – many people are in both groups. Oppression is a quilt of overlapping issues. This is true. But one misapplication of the empathy fallacy with intersectionality is that you have to be in ONE of the groups to be able to propose solutions. And the one group that is universally excluded as oppressed? White males.
So the king of all outgroups who cannot affect anyone else with their censure or approval? White males. More specifically? White ‘cis’ males, meaning heterosexuals. Since they don’t intersect with any supposed oppressed minority, they have absolutely no right to speak on any of these issues. This is just a very narrow and specific case of the empathy fallacy.
But while it may be true that it is harder to empathize with a group you are not part of, or if you yourself have not experienced marginalization, this does not make your arguments or causes illogical or incorrect. This is a form of the genetic fallacy – you arrived at your position illegitimately, and in this case, without the required perspective of the oppressed.
Abortion and the Empathy Fallacy
Nowhere is this fallacy more employed than against the pro-life movement. If you are a male, supposedly you not only lack the ability to truly empathize with the plight of women, all arguments as to the rights of the fetus you make can be discounted based on that inability. Essentially, “if you are not one of us, you can’t criticize us.”
Of course, if you are a white male who supports abortion, you may be given a pass on your empathic deficiency, but even in this arena, some argue that even support is disallowed. I have white friends who, for instance, have felt unwelcome trying to join and support black lives matter chapters.
Human Rights, Slavery, and the Empathy Fallacy
Let’s attempt to apply the empathy fallacy to the rights of the abolitionists and slave owners. If I were a slave owner, I would surely employ this argument. “You cannot understand what it is like to run a business in the south. You would impoverish our families and cause hardship. But you don’t care about that. You can’t empathize, and therefore, your criticism can be discounted.”
No sane modern person, however, would buy this argument – just because I have never abused the rights of another does not mean that I cannot object to it. And this is the same retort I would give to pro-choicers claiming that I had no right to condemn or limit abortion.
You don’t have to be in the group to support or criticize it
This fallacy is based on the truth that it is hard to empathize with others. However, that says nothing of the validity of your argument, pro or con.