Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion Hardcover – December 6, 2016
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From the Publisher
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.
“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)
- Item Weight : 12.8 ounces
- Hardcover : 304 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0062339338
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062339331
- Publisher : Ecco (December 6, 2016)
- Product Dimensions : 0.9 x 5.2 x 7.9 inches
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #450,129 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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