Against Empathy

In Against Empathy by Paul Bloom, we get to take an exciting look into what it feels like to take an unpopular stance. The book makes the moral case for compassion. And more than that takes on empathy (feeling of others’ emotions) on as the enemy. It’s a very interesting book that has already sparked some interesting conversations.

Use your head, not your heart

This is what I think gets the most pushback. You may ask, ‘why not use my heart, that is what makes me a moral person!’. And I totally get that. That is also how I would react instinctively. Wouldn’t we all start killing each other when there is no more heart involved? Bloom argues for a no.

One of the main arguments he puts forward is that empathy has a spotlight effect. We focus on certain people, in the here and now. Empathy is not what will lead you to donate malaria nets or make you care about climate change (how would you even see or feel that). Things we should very much care about are not touched upon by empathy. Compassion and rationality, Bloom argues, is much better at this.

Here it is in Bloom’s words:

“Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now. This makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with. Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism. It is shortsighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future. It is innumerate, favoring┬áthe one over the many. It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others. It is corrosive in personal relationships; it exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love.”


So you are forewarned, read this book at your own peril (but do very much read it).


Some more notes

  • Bloom is not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbour, being a mensch, and doing the right thing
  • He defines empathy as: “The act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.”
  • Many moral actions require no empathy for you to act (e.g. saving a drowning child)
  • Empathy may block you from taking action, or start avoiding the situation (e.g. beggar on the street, woman who lived next to Nazi camp)
  • Empathy can make you do acts that are unfair (e.g. experiment where asked to feel like ill girl in line, people moved her up, ahead of more sick children)
  • “If you absorb the suffering of others, then you’re less able to help them in the long run because achieving long-term goals often requires inflicting short-term pain.”
  • Psychopaths may very well have empathy. Their folly is a lack of moral guidelines and self-control
  • We can ‘read’ another person’s (or dog/cat) mind without having to feel their feelings
  • The ‘identifiable victim effect’ shows how empathy can only extend to one person (and if you show more, or numbers, people tune out)
  • In general, we care most about people who are like us (and from a Selfish Gene standpoint we can see where that comes from)
  • And we care about things that catch our attention (e.g. saving a dog from a well and that costing $27.000, that is more than needed to save a life)
  • Good parenting involves moments where you let your kid(s) suffer a little (e.g. not giving them the second ice cream)
  • Foreign aid can backfire in many ways (e.g. ‘orphans’, dependency of economies)
  • Both liberals and conservatives make emphatic appeals
  • Compassion is feeling for the other, and not feeling with the other
  • Evil in the world is not done by moral monsters (they don’t exist), it’s done by people who think they are doing the right thing
  • Empathy (for your group) can motivate violence (against the other group)
  • We are often irrational beings (see Thinking, Fast and Slow)