13. Against Empathy

Shame, pity and guilt in public policy

In the next few weeks, The R Word draws this conversation about shame, pity and guilt in public policy to a close by examining some propositions for change. One might think that empathy, our capacity to see the world through the eyes of others is a good place to start. Paul Bloom in his book Against Empathy takes the opposite view. With his permission we include two extracts.

The argument against empathy isn’t that we should be selfish and immoral. It’s the opposite. It’s that if we want to be good and caring people, if we want to make the world a better place, then we are better off without empathy.

If we want to be good and caring people, if we want to make the world a better place, then we are better off without empathy.

Or to put it more carefully, we are better off without empathy in a certain sense. Some people use empathy as referring to everything good, as a synonym for morality and kindness and compassion. And many of the pleas that people make for more empathy just express the view that it would be better if we were nicer to one another. I agree with this!

Others think about empathy as the act of understanding other people, getting inside their heads and figuring out what they are thinking. I’m not against empathy in that sense either. Social intelligence is like any sort of intelligence and can be used as a tool for moral action. We will see, though, that this sort of “cognitive capacity” is overrated as a force for good. After all, the ability to accurately read the desires and motivations of others is a hallmark of the successful psychopath and can be used for cruelty and exploitation.

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 term. But I should stress that nothing rests on the word itself. If you’d like to use it in a broader way, to refer to our capacity for caring and love and goodness, or in a narrower way, to refer to the capacity to understand others, well, that’s fine. For you, I’m not against empathy. You should then think of my arguments as bearing on a psychological process that many people -but not you- think of as empathy.

The idea I explore in the book is that the act of feeling what you think others are feeling -whatever one chooses to call this- is different from being compassionate, from being kind, and most of all, from being good. From a moral standpoint, we’re better off without it.

Many people see this as an unlikely claim. Empathy in this sense is a capacity that many people believe to be vitally important. It is often said that the rich don’t make the effort to appreciate what it is like to be poor, and if they did we would have more equality and social justice. When there are shootings of unarmed black men, commentators on the left argue that the police don’t have enough empathy for black teenagers, while those on the right argue that the critics of the police don’t have enough empathy for what it’s like to work as a police officer, having to face difficult and stressful situations. It’s said that whites don’t have enough empathy for blacks and that men don’t have enough empathy for women. Many commentators would agree with Barack Obama that the clash between Israelis and Palestinians will only end when those on each side “learn to stand in each other’s shoes”.

I think this is mistaken. The problems we face a society and as individuals are rarely due to lack of empathy. Actually, they often due to too much of it.

Empathy is 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 shortsighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future. It is innumerate, favouring the one over the many. It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity towards others. It is corrosive in personal relationships; it exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love.

Paul Bloom is Professor of Psychology at Yale. This is an extract from his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion currently available, as they say, in all good bookshops.

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