Against empathy?


Empathy is one of those skills held highly in society. Many of us, myself included, would like to claim we are good at it (even though it’s not always clear what that means and whether it’s fact or aspiration).


So stumbling upon a book titled ‘Against Empathy’ caught my attention. The author, Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science, argues that “our moral decisions and actions are powerfully shaped by the force of empathy […], this often makes the world worse […], we have the capacity to do better.” (p. 9).


He is eager to point out that he is not arguing against kindness, compassion, or even morality as such. He is also not suggesting that we should not try to understand the other, what he calls ‘cognitive empathy’. Instead, he is arguing against a certain form of empathy: feeling what the other feels.


One of the key problems he sees with that kind of emotional empathy is that it works like a laser beam, intently focusing on the feelings of one subject while ignoring the rest. For example, empathy makes you want to help a particular child move up an organ donor list because you feel what they (or their parents) feel, while disregarding everyone else on the list.


Empathy motivates action. Charities put a face to the needs they are addressing because it is easier to empathize with one child, one family we would help through our donation. But besides not necessarily motivating us to help in the most effective way (see ‘effective altruism’ movement), Bloom points out that empathy can also motivate us to look away, to feel what the other is feeling but not being willing to help nor bear that feeling and instead escape from it.

“our moral decisions and actions are powerfully shaped by the force of empathy […], this often makes the world worse […], we have the capacity to do better.” (Paul Bloom, 'Against Empathy', p. 9).

Bloom goes beyond an anti-empathy stance as is clear from the subtitle ‘The Case for Rational Compassion’. He defends our capacity for rational thinking against sweeping claims that much of what we do is the consequence of emotions, feelings, and biological urges, dressed in rationalizations. Yes, reasoning is not easy and often our nature as biological and social beings interferes and we are prone to biases. But that capacity is there for us to deliberately tap into (he also refers for that to Kahneman’s distinction between thinking fast and thinking slow).


And, Bloom argues, rationality is a more objective and fairer basis for compassion than subjective empathy. It also helps decide on what to do with issues that do not lend themselves easily to empathy: climate change, artificial intelligence, global governance, governance of Space (essentially the most pressing world problems identified by effective altruists).


But we should not throw out the baby out with the bathwater: empathy can fulfil a useful function in motivating action. It also adds richness to our lives and relationships. As Bloom puts it, empathy can be a useful servant, but should not be our master.

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