Is Paul Bloom Right About Empathy? No.

Chris Braak
Dec 15, 2016 · 8 min read

I want to write briefly about this “Yale Psychologist Says Pizzagate Gunman Has Too Much Empathy” and I need a little more room than a Twitter MANTHREAD so I guess it’s going to be here, at Medium, the Place for Long Tweets.

It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly I find so reproachable about this guy, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, so I am just going to go through his interview and see if I can work it out.

(This interview was probably highly-edited, so if the problems that I’m having come from the fact that Paul Bloom was edited to incoherence, then I’m sorry Paul Bloom! But I don’t think that’s the problem.)

Let’s start at the beginning:

Q: Let’s start with the obvious question: Is your beef with “empathy” a semantic one?

No. People do use the term “empathy” in all kinds of ways, often as a synonym for niceness. I’m not against niceness or being good. I’m not against being moral, compassionate and kind. I’m for all of these things, which is why I’m against emotional empathy.

Okay. But if your problem is with how people use the word “empathy” to describe something bad, isn’t that a semantic beef? To put it another way, if people use “empathy” to describe all kinds of different things, and those things are mostly good and people mostly mean good things by it, why exactly should we use this particular definition, which describes something bad and which most people don’t really mean, as the foundation for our thesis here?

It’s weird because when you do something like that, it makes it sound like you started with a counter-intuitive thesis (“Empathy Is Bad”) — maybe so that you could sell a book or get one of those jobs as a well-credentialed guy saying counter-intuitive things that always gets quoted in the New York Times and the Washington Post — but then in order to make your thesis actually make sense, you had to cherry-pick a very specific definition of empathy.

Emotional empathy, however, is when we feel the feelings of others. Many people, including many psychologists, philosophers and theologians, believe that this act of feeling the feelings of others is what makes us good people.

Well, look, Paul Bloom knows what many psychologists think better than I do, I’m sure, but this doesn’t actually sound real, this sounds like what Counselor Troi does on Star Trek. If a person is sad, by being empathetic, are you also sad? Or do you have a different, distinct emotion that is like sadness? If a person is angry at you, are you being empathetic by being angry at yourself, or by being angry back at them?

It’s easy to empathize with pretty people or those who don’t scare us, but people radically overstate their ability to empathize. We’re not good at it. It’s almost impossible to empathize with people we hate.

Hey hold up buddy, are you saying the problem with empathy isn’t that we have it, but that we’re not good at it? “Empathy is bad because we only empathize with certain people” isn’t a case against too much empathy, it’s a case against not enough empathy, on the I should think extremely obvious grounds that having empathy for fewer people is actually less empathy than having empathy for more people.

Empathy is also innumerate. It is the reason we care more about the child stuck in a well than the billions of people impacted by climate change. The plight of the billion is vague and statistical, while the story of one child draws us in.

Wait, so the difference between a child stuck in a well and the billions of people impacted by climate change is just the number of people affected? Not the immediacy of the situation, or how often it’s on the news, or how obvious and apparent the danger is?

In the American South, for example, lynchings were typically motivated by stories of white women who were raped by African American men. The stories were told to elicit real empathy in those who committed the murders. And in 1930s Germany, attacks on Jews were often motivated by stories of Jewish pedophiles preying on gentile children. It was easy for people to empathize with children and their families.

You got to assume a guy has done some research here, and far be it from me to speculate about the psychology of people who committed lynchings in the rural South, but are you 100% sure that the guys who did those lynchings were being empathetic to the raped white women? First of all, to be clear, we’re talking about stories of raped white women, not actual raped white women, and if we accept the definition of empathy that you started with (“when we feel the feelings of others”), then this actually isn’t empathy. You can’t feel the feelings of another person whose feelings you don’t actually know, or who you know about only from a book, or who actually doesn’t exist.

Second of all, were these German proto-Nazis empathizing with children, or with families? Because those are very different things! Feeling the helplessness and fear and pain of a rape victim is very different from feeling the outrage and fury of a parent; similarly, if we’re talking about people who committed lynchings, feeling the pain and despair of a rape victim is very different from feeling the outrage of that victim’s family.

Now, again, I want to be careful about speculating here, but is it possible that a person might have committed a lynching not because they felt the feelings of a person who didn’t exist but they’d heard about in a story, but instead because of how a constellation of personal fears — fear of black men, of loss of status and power, of control over women — was stoked by that story? In other words, is it possible that a person might commit a lynching because their own personal psychology resulted in a profound anger towards and fear of black people, and maybe they’d do it without even giving a second thought to the woman who they heard was raped?

[Donald Trump] regularly uses the suffering of people to elicit empathetic responses in his audiences, like when he talked about a young woman who was killed by an illegal immigrant.

wait hold on a second

[empathy] has been weaponized on all sides: empathy for the young woman vs. empathy for the fetus

whoah, dude, wait wait wait

empathy for the immigrant vs. empathy for the unemployed, and so forth

This isn’t…first of all, using a story about a person who is suffering isn’t “weaponized”, that’s not…that’s not a weapon. It’s also been something that rhetoricians have been complaining about since literally for as long as rhetoric has existed. That’s two.

Three is, how is this “when we feel what others feel”? You’re saying that Donald Trump tricked the audience into feeling the feelings of a dead person? Who wasn’t at the rally? How are you feeling the feelings of a character in a story? Characters don’t have feelings, they just resemble feelings. And how is it that anyone can feel the feelings of a fetus? And, again, how is the idea that feeling the feelings of an unemployed person person precludes feeling the feelings of an immigrant an indictment of too much empathy, as opposed to a very clear and precise example of not enough?

[on how to correct for politicians pushing a less-rational agenda] When our decisions are driven by emotion, be it lust or shame or guilt or even empathy, we become worse.

And ask for numbers-based arguments. We have to develop appropriate social and cultural practices so appeals to empathy and gut feelings will be laughed out of the room.

Right, so, just help me out here. If Donald Trumps comes into the room and says, “look, there are three million illegal immigrants in the US and many of them have jobs that should go to US citizens, so we should deport them,” this is a numbers-based argument, and someone else says, “wait, those are all human beings and we should be empathetic to them and not destroy their lives out of spite”, that’s an empathetic argument, and it’s the SECOND guy who should be laughed out of the room?

I don’t know. This Paul Bloom guy, he got his PhD from MIT, he rose pretty high in one of the most exalted academic institutions in the world, but it seems to me, just as a layman, that when you define “empathy” as “any time a person has a feeling because they thought about a person, whether or not that person is present, or real, and regardless of whether your feeling is the same as theirs or different”, then you’ve actually defined empathy beyond any kind of useful meaning.

Look at this Comet Pizza terrorist. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that he’s motivated by a surfeit of empathy. He’s a guy that really cares about the well-being of children. Well, if that’s the case, there’s surely a million things he could do about it — he could volunteer at a youth or domestic violence shelter, he could get a job with social services. Even if he believed that his paranoid fantasy was of supreme urgency, he could have snuck in there, broke in at night, applied for a job and infiltrated the organization. The problem here isn’t that he had too much empathy, it’s that he only had specific notions of what things deserved that empathy and how that empathy should be deployed.

Another way to say this, though, is that what Bloom is basically talking about is “feelings”. I think he’s wrong to say this, but if you switch out “empathy” here with “feelings”, the arguments at least become consistent. Bloom is one of these guys, he’s probably a neurologist who does a lot of game theory studies and fMRI readings of brains, who thinks that the world would be best off if we could set feelings aside for a minute and just vote completely rationally for once.

This is, as always, a good example of the limits of “rational goodness.” A guy like Paul Bloom, he wants a “numbers-based argument” for why we should do something. But if you’ve ever done any kind of basic logic, you know that you have to, before you apply reason, take something for granted. Geometry is full of axioms for this reasons — things that we can tell are true, but we don’t need to prove (sometimes because we aren’t sure how). No matter how many numbers you’ve got, you need to take something as axiomatically good.

(A horrifying argument: let’s say that you accepted as given that Jewish people were destroying German culture, and threatening the livelihood and well-being of millions of Germans. Isn’t it a rational conclusion that the Jews ought to be at least deported? Maybe even exterminated? The problem with bad things isn’t that they’re irrational, it’s that they’re bad.)

There’s no numbers-based argument for what constitutes “the good.” For a lot of us, particularly the irreligious, empathy —and I mean empathy the way people generally mean it, which is when you try to understand a person by trying to imagine how they feel — is the basis for that goodness.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that we should continue to be empathetic just because it’s important to me, but what I *do* want to suggest is that anyone who says we ought to abandon empathy and instead behave in a purely rational way doesn’t actually understand empathy, rationality, or morality, MIT-educated Yale Brooks & Suzanne Ragen Prof of Psychology & Cognitive Science or not.

UPDATE: an earlier version of this article referred to “Counseler Troy”, the civilian counseler on the starship Enterprise on the television show Star Trek: the Next Generation. That character’s name is spelled “Troi.” This article has been changed to reflect that.

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