Book review: “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom

I believe this book was another recommendation based on one of my Goodreads shelves. The title just sounds so, well, against everything I thought I knew? I use the word empathy all the time, I encourage more empathy, I thought I appreciated it when others attempted to empathize. When looking for something we both would find interesting, my wife selected this one for our nightly reading, probably for similar reasons.

The author, Paul Bloom, is a Canadian American psychologist at Yale. He overlaps at least to some extent with some of the work done by Jonathan Haidt, but comes to some different conclusions regarding the rationality of man (more on that later). I hadn’t heard of Bloom before, but he also appears to have a large Twitter following. Well, let’s dig in to some of the meat of the book.

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My Summary

First off, I must clarify: Bloom ISN’T arguing for cold-heartedness, unkindness, or a “No one cares about your feelings” approach. When he refers to empathy, he is referring to a very specific phenomenon that he defines as such:

Empathy is the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does… the act of feeling what you think others are feeling—whatever one chooses to call this—is different from being compassionate, from being kind, and most of all, from being good.

In this sense, perhaps you may feel that Bloom is mincing words. But I think this is a significant difference. Is it possible to really parse out empathy, to cut it from other feelings, like compassion and understanding? Bloom believes so. He argues that from a policy standpoint, empathy is a horrible gauge:

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 the 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.

What is Bloom’s alternative? Compassion and understanding driven by rationality to make it happen. It doesn’t have to be cold, but it does have to be motivated by facts. Now, I just got done reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, where he argues that such an approach is impossible: we aren’t rational creatures. Logic wasn’t invented for the discovery of truth, but for survival, to win over supporters and argue against enemies, and to justify your actions. Haidt embraces Hume’s argument that reason is the slave of the passions. He doesn’t view us as hopelessly lost though: society works when we can overcome our confirmation biases by arguing against each other; we’re forced to re-craft our arguments so they can withstand arguments from opponents. Bloom laughs a little at the apparent contradiction in terms in arguing against reason with reason. And he addresses some of Haidt’s arguments near the end of the book, arguing that many social psychology results are fragile and impossible to replicate, while others are interesting but not important. I thought that was a little hand-wavey, because I largely agree with Haidt. I think acknowledging our irrationality as a constraint is absolutely vital, especially in realms where the truth is more difficult to parse out: politics for example. Both sides are going to tell you that they are the rational ones.

In the end, Bloom gives a very short nod to empathy: while it is bad for making decisions, it can be fun and enjoyable:

Empathy can be an immense source of pleasure. Most obviously, we feel joy at the joy of others. I’ve noted elsewhere that here lies one of the joys of having children: You can have experiences that you’ve long become used to—eating ice cream, watching Hitchcock movies, riding a roller coaster—for the first time all over again. Empathy amplifies the pleasures of friendship and community, of sports and games, and of sex and romance. And it’s not just empathy for positive feelings that engages us. There is a fascination we have with seeing the world through the eyes of another, even when the other is suffering. Most of us are intensely curious about the lives of other people and find the act of trying to simulate these lives to be engaging and transformative.

I was thinking how Latter-Day Saints have a doctrinal commitment to empathy: to some extent, the Book of Mormon argues that this is how the Atonement of Christ works:

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

I find Bloom’s argument for reason to be very appealing, and I definitely agree with the spotlight effect of empathy that leads us to biased decisions. But I wouldn’t say that I am “against empathy.” I feel like empathy should be one of many tensions that guide our decisions.

After reading the book, I feel committed to read up a little on Buddhist philosophy, as Bloom draws on it to demonstrate the difference between “sentimental compassion” (what we call empathy) and “great compassion” (what we call compassion). I also want to read up on Adam Smith, who was not only the great economist, but also a deep thinker on topics surrounding human nature. I added a few to my reading list already.

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