Book Review: Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom

“Anger does nobody good, but patience is the father of kindness. Anger draws arrows from the quiver, but good works draw kola-nuts from the bag.”

Yoruba Aphorism as found in The Yoruba-speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa,  page 239, by Alfred Burdon Ellis

“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:

And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”

Ephesians 4:31-32 New Testament, KJV

There is a near universal- in cultures, religions, and societies across the world- admonition to avoid or temper anger. Yet, anger is clearly a part of the normal spectrum of human emotion. It at times causes us to rise against persecution, violence, and oppression. Nonetheless, we quickly observe the downside to anger. It often feeds those very negative societal elements of persecution, violence, and oppression. Moreover, relationships suffer from anger. Angry people make for poor friends and company  at the least. Consequently, long-held societal norms frequently counsel against anger.

Paul Bloom is making a similar case regarding empathy. He even draws this comparison between empathy and anger near the end of his book. Bloom asserts that even though we reap some benefits from empathy, they are outweighed by the costs. Thus, on balance, we are better off without emphasizing empathy.

Alternatively, Bloom argues, we should adopt rational compassion. Sorting through psychological research in empathy, Bloom distinguishes between cognitive empathy-the ability to contemplate the feelings of another- and emotional empathy- the tendency to mirror the same feelings of another. He asserts, the former is a useful tool while the later is like a spotlight, biased and overly focused. Our empathy is then easily manipulated by where we shine the light and prevents us from peering into the darkened portions of the room. Anyone who has peered into a spotlight quickly understand the difficulty in discerning characteristics of the environment outside of the lit area. Intense light is blinding, as is empathy.

Bloom addresses nearly all dimensions of empathy: empathy as a moral foundation, its ability to create good outcomes, empathy as a political tool, and the role of empathy in violence and cruelty. In all areas Bloom finds empathy incapable of delivering consistently desirable outcomes and believes that we are lead astray by our empathetic tendencies.

In our personal relations we are better off understanding but not mirroring the emotions of others. In policy, we are lead astray by our focus on one group or individual without recognizing the unseen consequences of that hyper focus. One of the first lessons of economics is: there are always trade-offs, seen or unseen. As a moral foundation Bloom states that empathy fails the test, as we are clearly able to do good without feeling what another feels. Consider, he urges, the drowning child. There is no need to feel the fear or desperation of the child to jump in and pull her to safety. In fact, mirroring those feelings would likely hamper the effort, if not make it impossible. Perhaps most counter-intuitively, Bloom claims that empathy does little to curb violence and cruelty. Remember the spotlight? That light may shine bright enough to lead us to certain actions, that otherwise, would be considered morally reprehensible. Bloom illustrates with examples, some of which are controversial, but all show how many play on empathy to justify their actions.

Of course, Bloom leaves himself wiggle room. Violence, he reminds, is sometimes necessary under certain circumstances, but instead of empathy, those actions should be motivated by the more rational cost-benefit approach. Consider the British code-breakers of WWII who broke the Enigma code, in order to utilize the advantage they could not overplay their hand and instead carefully selected when best to act on their intelligence. This left some to die so that, on balance, the greater cause could be won.

The question is: are we able to throw off our personal and cultural habits and natural inclination toward empathy? Is it possible to replace with a more rational compassion? In Bloom’s interview with Russ Roberts on the podcast Econtalk, he makes an important point: We have, largely, done this with racism and slavery. What was once the worldwide norm is a diminishing perspective on human relations. Will that always be so? No idea, but hopefully yes. Perhaps- much like that victory over our natural racists inclinations, or like our common admonitions against anger- we are able to collectively place empathy below other more compelling human characteristics. Characteristic such as Bloom’s “rational compassion” may be better able to address the needs of the many while minimizing the costs.

Overall Bloom’s book is highly approachable. His tone is casual and though he treats alternate points of view seriously, he treats his views with an air of occasional self-deprecation that makes Bloom a likable (even sympathetic) author. Though I may still be somewhat skeptical of our ability to overcome our empathy obsession, perhaps Bloom nudges us in the right direction.

James Devereaux is an attorney and fan of good books. If you would like a book reviewed by a mediocre blogger, feel free to tweet @jcdevereaux1 (dm is fine if jointly followed). And, if I find the time, I may do just that. All views are his own and not of any employer or affiliate. All examples in review are from the book.

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