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Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion Hardcover – December 6, 2016
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Paul Bloom Talks With Leslie Jamison
Leslie Jamison is a novelist and essayist, and the author of The Empathy Exams.
Leslie: You say that telling people you were writing a book against empathy was like telling people you were writing a book against kittens. So let's start there: What's your quarrel with kittens? What's the trouble with empathy?
Paul: Everyone loves kittens, and just about everyone loves empathy. It's easy to see it as a moral cure-all, making us kinder and more loving, essential for positive social change.
But empathy is surprisingly bad at making us good. It's 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 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 exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love. And I'm just getting started!
Leslie: What's the difference between empathy and compassion? Why does that difference matter?
Paul: My subtitle is 'The Case for Rational Compassion.' The 'rational' part refers to how we should make moral decisions, and it's pretty obvious what this means. But 'compassion' might be less clear. I'm referring here to concern for others, wanting their pain to go away, wanting their lives to improve—but without the shared emotional experience that's so central to empathy.
The distinction isn't obvious, which is one reason why some people think that we couldn't be good without empathy. But they really are different—they even activate distinct parts of the brain—and it turns out that compassion is superior in just about every way. It's less biased and innumerate, less upsetting and exhausting. A compassionate person can help others with energy and good cheer, without the pernicious influence of vicarious suffering.
Leslie: People always ask me if I think empathy can be taught. So I'll ask you: Do you think it can be un-taught? Do you think it should be?
Paul: You might be surprised to hear this, but I think empathy adds a lot to our lives. Without empathy, there would be no literature, no film, and very little art. Your own writing, I think, beautifully illustrates the transformative power of empathy. So I wouldn't un-teach it.
My complaint about empathy is that it makes us bad decision-makers and, for some of us, causes unnecessary suffering. In some circumstances, then, it really would be nice to be able to dial it down. There is some tentative evidence that the practice of mindfulness meditation really helps with this.
Leslie: What kinds of resistance have you encountered as a public intellectual writing 'against empathy?' How has this resistance been useful?
Paul: I get my share of nasty emails and mean tweets. When some people hear that I’m against empathy, they leap to the conclusion that I'm some sort of monster, and respond accordingly.
But these are exceptions. Most of the responses to my views have been very civil and very useful. I've received a lot of thoughtful critical feedback, including from many who aren't professional scholars or scientists, but who just happen to think deeply about these important issues. Some responses have led me to clarify my arguments and, in a few areas, to change my mind.
An Amazon Best Book of December 2016: Raise your hand if you're against empathy. No one…? Paul Bloom freely admits that taking a stance against empathy is a position that most people will shun. But as Bloom lays out his argument for why rational analysis, morality, and compassion are better compass points to follow for making the world a better place, indeed, empathy begins to sound like a miserable basis for decision-making. Parenting, charity, psychotherapy, and war all come under Bloom's scrutiny, and with a wry voice and lots of examples, he knocks down one by one the arguments for why empathy would create better outcomes. Careful to draw the line between compassion and empathy, Bloom can sometimes sound like he's retreading the same argument's path, but his tongue-in-cheek asides keep the book entertaining and drew me to the end long after I'd come to agree with his premise. For those who want to understand better how the heart and head battle for supremacy and which organ should be a better guide, this is a counterintuitive approach that's as entertaining to read as it is informative. --Adrian Liang, The Amazon Book Review
“An invigorating, relevant and often very funny re-evaluation of empathy, one of our culture’s most ubiquitous sacred cows, which in Mr. Bloom’s view should be gently led to the abattoir.” (New York Times)
“Provocative . . . In a time of post-truth politics, his book offers a much-needed call for facts.” (The Economist)
“Cleverly contrarian…” (New York Post)
“A lucidly argued tract about the hazards of good intentions.” (Vox)
“Like a tough-to-crack case against an idea that most of us have long known is key to repairing the world… will legitimately change how you think about the world and your own sense of morality.” (New York Magazine)
“Mr. Bloom is undoubtedly right that empathy alone makes for bad policy: While it can motivate us to care, we need reason to help us design and implement policies aimed at reducing suffering.” (Wall Street Journal)
“A nuanced foray into some fraught grey areas.” (Nature)
“Refreshing.” (Library Journal)
“Provocative… and powerful.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Bloom’s more positive view of the role of reason fits with what I take to be the correct understanding of ethics.” (Project Syndicate)
“An intriguing counterattack to modern psychological cynicism.” (Kirkus)
“Bloom challenges one of our most cherished assumptions about what it takes to be good. With elegance and humor, Bloom reveals just how flawed that assumption is, and offers a new vision of a moral life-one based on how our minds actually work.” (Carl Zimmer, author of Evolution: Making Sense of Life)
“Bloom’s analysis is penetrating, comprehensive, and timely. Against Empathy is destined to become a classic in psychology.” (Michael Shermer, Publisher Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist Scientific American, and author of The Moral Arc and The Science of Good and Evil)
“Despite a near consensus about its merits, Bloom shows that empathy is often just the warm embrace of prejudice-and, like anger, a reliable source of moral confusion. . . . a thrilling book, and reading it could well make you a better person.” (Sam Harris, author of the New York Times bestsellers The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape, and Waking Up)
“I couldn’t put this brilliantly argued book down.” (Amy Chua, Yale Law Professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package)
“A brilliant, witty, and convincing defense of rational generosity against its pain-feeling detractors. Read this book and you will never think about empathy, goodness, or cold-blooded reason the same way again.”- (Larissa MacFarquhar, author of Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help)
“Brilliant, powerful, and provocative, Against Empathy is sure to be one of the most controversial books of our time.” (Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness)
“One of the most thought-provoking and convincing books I’ve read. Bloom’s logic is compelling, his prose fluid, and his deep humanity and compassion always evident. A must-read for those who want an alternative to a world where emotional gambits reign supreme--for better and often, for worse.” (Maria Konnivkova, author of The Confidence Game)
“The title may shock, but this is a book of calm reason and expansive compassion. It’s also a pleasure to read: warm, lucid, and thought-provoking.” (Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature)
“Bracing and provocative, Against Empathy takes a scalpel to empathy. This lucid and entertaining book argues there is a better way - that our capacity for reason, tempered with compassion, will make us better policy makers and better people.” (Emily Yoffe, author of What the Dog Did)
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Importantly, Bloom doesn’t argue that there’s no positive role for empathy in our lives - it’s crucial in our personal relationships for example - but at the larger scale, empathy won’t help make the world a better place, because our emotional systems weren’t designed to help us minimize world suffering, but to motivate us to help our family and friends and to weight them over others. Thus, the subtitle of his book, “The Case for Rational Compassion.” Concern for others’ welfare (compassion) is not the same as feeling what others feel (empathy), and it is the former, Bloom argues, that we need to cultivate to guide our moral decisions in the larger world in which we live - a more distanced, principled stance that involves caring about others, but not favoring some individuals over others. The book has caused me to sit back and try to think much more logically about my own charitable giving, what principles I want to support and where it will do the most good, as opposed to spontaneously giving to random causes that pull my heartstrings. The goal of being a better person, it turns out, is a little like the goal of being a healthy person - you have to resist the easy appealing option junk-food (Cheetos from the vending machine; the adorable baby seal blinking its liquid brown eyes) and go for the more difficult, dispassionate evaluation of nutritional value. What feels good isn’t the same as what is good - for us, and for others.
Bloom's arguments and examples are fascinating, and in addition to being thought-provoking, Bloom is an excellent writer - it’s an engaging, and engrossing, and (somewhat unexpectedly, given its topic) a thoroughly fun and enjoyable read.
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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The book’s title, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, apparently aims at eliciting an emotional reaction,...Read more