“If you are struggling with a moral decision and find yourself trying to feel someone else’s pain or pleasure, you should stop.” –Paul Bloom, AGAINST EMPATHY
It’s difficult to read Paul Bloom’s unsettling AGAINST EMPATHY without recalling the famously cynical quotation from Joseph Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths are a statistic.” In his book, Bloom makes the case for “rational compassion” as a more reliable moral instrument than empathy, but in doing so he employs the same “perverse moral mathematics” on which Stalin relied, criticizing (for example) the tendency of “governments and individuals [to] care more about a little girl stuck in a well than about events that will affect millions or billions.” The same emotion-based logic (or illogic), says Bloom, is why “outrage at the suffering of a few individuals can lead to actions, such as going to war, that have terrible consequences for many more.”
Bloom, of course, is no cynic, nor is he advancing a political agenda. “The issues here,” he insists, “go beyond policy…what really matters for kindness in our everyday interactions is not empathy but capacities such as self-control and intelligence and a more diffuse compassion.” The problem with empathy, as Bloom sees it, is that it “is biased and parochial; it focuses you on certain people at the expense of others; and it is innumerate, so it distorts our moral and policy decisions in ways that cause suffering instead of relieving it.”
It’s important to realize that Bloom distinguishes what he calls “cognitive empathy”: “the capacity to understand what’s going on in other’s people’s heads, to know what makes them tick, what gives them joy and pain, what they see as humiliating or ennobling. We’re not talking here about me feeling your pain but rather about me understanding that you are in pain without necessarily experiencing any of it myself.”
Bloom has no problem with this sort of empathy; in fact, he considers it absolutely essential. What he opposes is the “I feel your pain” kind of empathy, or what used to be derogatorily referred to as “bleeding-heart” responses to suffering. “Cognitive empathy,” Bloom argues, “is a useful tool…but it is morally neutral. I believe that the capacity for emotional empathy, described as “sympathy” by philosophers such as Adam Smith and David Hume, often simply known as “empathy” by so many scholars, theologians, educators, and politicians, is actually morally corrosive.”
In reality, Bloom acknowledges, we need both empathy (rightly understood) and rational compassion, and his book is a corrective (if not a polemic) against our contemporary emphasis on the former. Empathy has its uses but it also has its limits; I suspect Bloom could have titled his book THE LIMITS OF EMPATHY, but that might not have had the same iconoclastic ring. Regardless, Bloom’s “controversial call to arms” will prompt some soul-searching on the part of anyone who hears it; it’s an important issue and a provocative argument, so I suggest putting AGAINST EMPATHY right alongside WHAT HAVE WE DONE on your must-read list.