I thoroughly enjoyed Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy. Bloom set out to make his controversial claim that empathy leads to more harm than good. He’s against it. No really, he is. His words: “I am against empathy, and one of the goals of this book is to persuade you to be against empathy too” (p. 3). I don’t fully agree with his conclusion, but I do agree with a great deal of his argument. I’ve been doing some minor research on the topic of empathy which is what drove me to this book. It is en vogue these days to believe that empathy is key to all morality. Religious and philosophical ethics are commonly out the window; empathy is here to save the day. But is it? Is that claim truly justifiable?
First of all it’s important to note that Bloom is not a cold hearted anti-moralist monster. While he states clearly that he is against empathy, it’s important to note what he is for: “rational compassion.” It’s also important to understand his definition of empathy. He writes “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 terms” (pp. 3-4).
I don’t want to write about his findings here but simply wish to note that he writes convincingly about the necessary narrow scope of empathy, it’s moral dilemmas, and biases. He also explores the frequent weaknesses of the test cases that apparently “prove” that empathy is our great moral compass. All of that to simply say, he makes a great case and writes a great book. I am going to write a few issues I take with the book, but mostly I thought it was great. My lopsided review is an attempt to leave the content for you and avoid spoilers.
Ultimately I’m persuaded but not fully convinced by Bloom’s argument. I think his categories are a tad too narrow and don’t allow for the overlap which is the integrated human person. I’m sure he would disagree, but perhaps empathy, rationality, and compassion overlap more than the author allows for. I noticed this early in the book when he wrote that “Many of our moral heroes, real and fictional, are not rational maximizers or ethical eggheads; they are people of heart. From Huckleberry Fin to Pip to Jack Bauer, from Jesus to Gandi to Martin Luther King Jr., they are individuals of great feeling” (p. 6) Really? Gandi, MLK, and Jesus were very rational in their ethics. King’s decision not to return violence for violence is about a lot of things, feeling is not one of them. This is a rationally planned decision to override what feeling would tell you in the moment. These men were all men of “heart,” but they were deeply rational. They were integrated. Jesus is perhaps the most rational ethical figure in history (both King and Gandi followed his ethic). Jesus’ ethic cannot be reduced to his golden rule as the author seemed to hint at. (Important to note that this ethic is shared by all major religions.) Neither can it be ignored. Integration seems key. At one point Bloom writes “if a child is starving, it doesn’t really matter whether the food is delivered by a smiling aid worker who hands it over and then gives the kid a hug, or dropped from the sky by a buzzing drone. The niceties of personal contact are far less important than actually saving lives” (p. 106). Well, yes; mainly true. But again, integration is key. Human touch cannot be measured the same way calories can be counted, and while the immediate need is most certainly food that needn’t diminish the long term – though often immeasurable – impact of human touch. Alas, I’m being a bit “nitpicky.” But one more thing.
Quoting James Rachels, “morality is, at the very least, the effort to guide one’s conduct by reason–that is, to do what there are the best reasons for doing–while giving equal weight to the interests of each individual affected by one’s decision” (p. 52) Here the question is which morality? What is the goal (telos) of morality? I certainly have a different telos than Bloom. This became really clear to me in the fifth chapter on “violence and cruelty.” Bloom writes, “unless we are transformed into angels, violence and the threat of violence are needed to rein in our worst instincts” (p. 179). It strikes me, therefore, that rational compassion is massively important, but the question remains: rational compassion towards what? Who’s version of morality? Who is right on their view of the role of violence, me or Bloom? Who decides. This is an important underlying moral question and I was unclear where he stood.
While I may disagree with some of Bloom’s assessments, I believe empathy has been significantly overplayed. Morality is important for every culture to think through and Bloom confronts what many have taken granted in ours. Despite my disagreement on some points, I am grateful for this work and hope it is widely read.
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