Review of Against Empathy – Paul Bloom (2016)

Ideas in psychology can be rather at odds with our intuitions. An example of this can be found in a new book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, written by Paul Bloom, psychologist at Yale University. Many people view empathy as an important source of all that is good in the world and the lack of empathy as an important cause of many bad things in the world.  Leaders like Barack Obama and scientists like George Lakoff and Simon Baron-Cohen view empathy as something of which people can't have too much. Bloom has a different view.

The spotlight character of empathy

Bloom's criticism of empathy is about emotional empathy, feeling what another person feels, and not about cognitive empathy, imagining how another person must feel. When I am talking to empathy below, I am referring to emotional empathy. Bloom acknowledges that empathy can have good effects but argues that these are outweighed by its negative effects. He argues that while empathy has a great impact on our moral judgments and behavior it does not, on the whole, make the world better but worse.

The reason for this is that empathy works like a spotlight. It focuses just on one individual or a small group of individuals and on the here-and-now. We can empathize with an individual but not with a large group of people. As Stalin once said: "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic." Normally we empathize with our close ones and not for strangers. If our child is being bullied at school, we might lose sleep over that fact, but we tend not to do so over 100 deaths due to war or a natural disaster in a faraway country.

Manipulation of our empathy

The spotlight character of empathy can be used of abused when people want something from us. When someone wants us to donate money for a charity they are likely to have more success when they show us a picture of a hungry child than when they show us abstract facts and statistics about the poverty in that country. Politicians can use the spotlight character of empathy to make people empathize with one individual while arousing anger at some group which is held responsible for this individual's type of suffering.

Donald Trump did this in his presidential campaign by repeatedly mentioning a person named Kate who was a victim of rape by an illegal Mexican immigrant. Due to this many people strongly empathized with Kate and felt fear and anger about illegal Mexican immigrants. This is an example of how people can be manipulated through empathy and it sheds light on how empathy can contribute to us-them thinking and inter-ethnic tensions and even wars. How you think about a topic usually does not depend on whether you empathize but rather with whom you empathize. Mostly those will be people who look the most like you.

Bloom acknowledges that empathy can sometimes work as a brake against aggression and violence. This happens when we put ourselves in their shoes. But, according to him, empathy will more often work as the gas pedal, the thing that makes us angry in the first place. Bloom discusses many other examples - too many to mention here - of how acting based on empathy can have negative consequences.

Professional helpers should help but not empathize

One example is interesting to mention here. In the role of a professional helper empathy can be ineffective. A surgeon who is overwhelmed with empathy during surgery can not operate effectively. Therapists who strongly empathize with their clients can also become less effective. Good therapists give a great deal of attention and care for their clients but they do not empathize strongly with their clients. Blooms quotes a client who said this about her professional helper: "I wanted to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo." This type of professional distance can be more helpful for both the client and the helper. When helpers stay calm clients may even empathize with them and become calmer too.

The alternative: rational compassion

Bloom also mentions research which supports the idea that empathy is not a prerequisite for morality and that lack of empathy does not necessarily make people violent or immoral. He points at two sources of morality which are actually indispensable: evolution and reason.

Bloom argues for rational compassion, taking care of other people and trying to improve their situation without feeling their emotions. This way we will be less vulnerable to us-them thinking, more inclined to take facts an figures into consideration, as well as future events and consequences of our choices.

Rational compassion may motivate us to work on important, more abstract topics which cannot easily excite our empathy. Examples of these are the transition to cleaner fuels, investing in better education, and strengthening democracy.