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Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion Paperback – January 9, 2018
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“Provocative . . . In a time of post-truth politics, his book offers a much-needed call for facts.” (The Economist)
“Cleverly contrarian…” (New York Post)
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“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)
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“Bloom’s more positive view of the role of reason fits with what I take to be the correct understanding of ethics.” (Project Syndicate)
From the Inside Flap
A controversial call to arms by one of the world's leading psychologists, Against Empathy reveals how the natural impulse to share the feelings of others leads to cruel and irrational behavior on both the world stage and at home. With precision and wit, Paul Bloom demonstrates how empathy distorts our judgment in every aspect of our lives, from philanthropy and charity to the justice system; from medical care and education to parenting and marriage. Without empathy, Bloom insists, our decisions would be clearer, fairer, and--yes--ultimately more moral.--Larissa MacFarquhar, author of Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help
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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.
What I discovered, though, is that the views are totally reconcilable. Here, Paul Bloom does a fascinating (and frequently entertaining) job at exploring how empathy should be avoided in moral deliberation (e.g. which governmental programs deserve the most funding?). He also has many interesting diversions as he explores topics such as cruelty, romance, and other topics where empathy could appear.
That said, you as the reader can emerge having learned something that actually makes sense, and still recognize the positives of empathy. It would be the same idea as if someone wrote a book discussing the negatives of love, and titled it "Against Love". Just because there are positives associated with the love, doesn't mean that there aren't negatives too. Here's a book about the negatives. Same thing - just replace love for empathy.
One last note is how fascinatingly philosophical the book gets, especially considering how Bloom is a psychologist. His arguments are very utilitarian and consequentialist, and he spends a some time to defend how these are best fitted for logical, compassionate moral deliberation.
Top international reviews
I dropped my review from five to four stars for what I believe is a glaring omission to the argument; namely reciprocity. I kept turning the pages expecting to find some mention of this vital ingredient of human social behaviour persuasively argued in Matt Ridley’s book ‘The Origin of Virtue’. Although Bloom does tantalising touch on the social angle, any book that argues about empathy – whether for or against – without touching on reciprocity is diminished in its worth and here’s why. Our empathetic responses might go some way to explain why we might help an elderly stranger across the street. However, if we accept Bloom’s argument that our empathy is acutely focused on those that are immediately relevant to us – a force that ripples out from family, to neighbours, to fellow citizens at which point, for the most part, it loses its potency – then exactly why do we help the elderly stranger without any immediate expectation of reward? Citing empathy doesn’t really help us here and in a book that’s against empathy, failing to mention that so much of our moral behaviour is driven by a hard-wired instinct for future reward within the social group, seems odd.
Paul Bloom builds a case for rational compassion, where we use our heads as well as our hearts. He questions empathy’s use in politics, in empathising with one group against another. He views empathy as something that can be manipulated by politicians to get us to feel the plight of certain groups, while cutting off from feeling the plight of others.
My reason for dropping one star, is that he omits ‘projective identification’ as the mechanism behind empathy. This concept, from Melanie Klein, extends our understanding of just how we can enter the psyche of another or be entered by them. The more benign form of projective identification is empathy, but its more hostile form can lead to ensorcellment and brainwashing.
It is also a very readable book unlike a bunch of dense academic books I have bought where I feel very clever for understanding a few paragraphs and then Leave them to gather dust in a corner. Highly recommended
The only sense I made of to is that he feels we should be more rational when we are empathetic towards something/one - act less from the heart more form the mind - that's it. Does that warrant 250 pages? Not for me.
Bloom states that he hates terminology, yet it felt like him spending the majority of the time redefining terminology around empathy and compassion. Perhaps I've missed something or not intelligent enough to comprehend further but I just felt exhausted by page 50 with no new insight decided to pack it in. Sorry Bloom.