Against Empathy

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by Paul Bloom

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  1. Just finished Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

    Although the title sounds outlandish, since we have grown accustomed to thinking of empathy as synonymous is goodness, or at least a generally good stance towards other humans, the message is not.

    He is simply arguing (as have others) that empathy (feeling the emotions, etc, that another person feels) has several problems. Of note, he is not talking about what he calls cognitive empathy (the ability to understand the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another), but rather empathy in this sense:

    “The notion of empathy that I’m most interested in is the act of feeling what you believe other people feel—experiencing what they experience. This is how most psychologists and philosophers use the term” (pp. 3-4).

    He is against *that* kind of empathy, not cognitive empathy, and not compassion, care, concern, kindness, etc. He distinguishes some of these as follows:

    “empathy is related to compassion and concern, and sometimes the terms are used synonymously. But compassion and concern are more diffuse than empathy. It is weird to talk about having empathy for the millions of victims of malaria, say, but perfectly normal to say that you are concerned about them or feel compassion for them. Also, compassion and concern don’t require mirroring of others’ feelings” (pp. 40-41).

    So what exactly does he say is wrong with empathy? In brief:

    [1] “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.

    [2] Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism.

    [3] It is shortsighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future.

    [4] It is innumerate, favoring the one over the many.

    [5] It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others.

    [6] It is corrosive in personal relationships; it exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love.” (p. 9).

    He doesn’t make much of a case for #6, and in fact concedes at several points that empathy is good and important in intimate relationships.


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