Paul Bloom, Against empathy: the case for rational compassion

Paul Bloom is not opposed to empathy per se; he accepts that empathy can awaken our generosity and inspire us to care better for others.  What Bloom has a quarrel with is the idea that the ability to share in someone else’s emotions makes you a better person in a moral sense.  As a spur to doing the right thing, Bloom prefers ‘righteous rage’ to empathy.  This he credits with propelling forward the women’s liberation and civil rights movements. What are the merits of ‘righteous rage’ (anger coupled with sound reasoning)?  It is ‘highly motivating, difficult to manipulate, applicable wherever injustice is found, [and] easier [than empathy] to insulate against bias’.  There are many components to Bloom’s argument for adopting a more reasoned response in difficult or unhappy situations, listed below are those that I found most striking.

  • No one has a universal ability to empathise.  You can only really empathise with one person at a time.  Trying to feel the emotions of more two or more people at once is nigh on impossible.  Furthermore, we all empathise best with those we understand or otherwise identify with, for example, those in the same racial, ethnic and social groups as us, and struggle to empathise with those whom we perceive as different or other.  This is a problem because those in the former category are not necessarily more deserving of our compassion than those in the latter.  A laboratory study in which male football fans were given a small electric shock and then required to watch another man receiving a similar shock, highlighted this problem.  If the fan believed that the man he had watched being shocked supported the same team as him his ’empathic neural response’ was stronger than if he believed the man supported another team.
  • When we empathise with a particular person, we can lose sight of the bigger picture.  As evidence for this, Bloom cites the impact of the Willie Horton case on Michael Dukakis’s bid for the presidency in 1988.  As governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis oversaw for a furlough release scheme for prisoners.  Convicted murder Willie Horton was one of the prisoners to benefit from this scheme.  During his release, Horton attacked a couple, first assaulting and tying up the man and then raping the woman.  Empathy with the couple led to general condemnation of the furlough release scheme, and it is generally thought that Horton’s actions went at least some way to ensuring the failure of Dukakis’s bid for the White House.  But empathy misled people, the statistics show that the furlough release scheme decreased the rates of recidivism in Massachusetts, meaning that overall it almost certainly saved lives.  The trouble is that the positive statistics  were not as vivid to people as the wronged couple.  And, we can’t use our empathic skills to identify with the unknown people who were not harmed as a result of reduced rates of violent crime because empathy only works when we know the specifics.
  • In a similar vein, is the argument that too much empathy towards those alive now can lead us to ignore potentially greater suffering of future generations.  Here, Bloom uses the example of climate change. Empathy can be used effectively to evoke fellow feeling with those who will be harmed now by increased energy prices, additional taxes and business closures.  By contrast, empathy cannot be used to get people to care about the faceless millions whose lives will be made harder by our current inaction.
  • People’s willingness and ability to empathise can be used to manipulate them.  Anne Coulter’s most recent book, Adios America is essentially a diatribe against Hispanic immigrants to the US.  How does Coulter invoke hatred for those from this community?  By recounting in great detail the stories of those who have fallen prey to murderers, rapists and other criminals of Hispanic origin.  By providing extensive detail about the victims, and characterising the criminals not just as monsters but rather as Hispanic monsters, Coulter draws her reader’s attention away from two key facts (1) the vast majority of Hispanics are model citizens and (2) crime has complex causes.
  • Feeling pity for an individual who has been hurt by an unkind comment or a frank opinion is an empathic response that might incline us towards trigger warnings, safe spaces or even censorship.  Empathy is unlikely to incline us to a defence of free speech – for that we need to use our reasoning skills.
  • Even when we feel empathy, we can’t be guaranteed to do the right thing.  Bloom uses a story first recounted by moral philosopher Jonathan Glover to illustrate this point.  The story is of a woman who lived near a Nazi concentration camp and felt empathy for those she could hear being tortured.  The woman’s response, however, was not to protest about the torture itself but rather to request that the victims were tortured out of her earshot.  (Although it is easy to feel pretty disgusted by this story, I feel bound to point out that even if the woman had asked for the torture to be stopped, she would have been at best ignored and at worst taken into custody herself.  The realities of the Nazi regime make this a problematic example.)

For Bloom, empathy is not simply overrated as a moral compass, it is not a necessary component in rational decision making.  ‘We should decide on just punishments based on a reasoned and fair analysis of what’s appropriate, not through empathic engagement with the pain of victims.’  This makes sense, and I would make a related point.  As a teacher, I am very aware that if I  empathised too much with those children who turn on the waterworks when they are in trouble, it would undermine both my fairness and my consistency.

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