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Surely empathy’s a good thing?

Not necessarily, says Paul Bloom. It’s generally a bad moral guide, and can lead to indifference and even cruelty

28 January 2017

9:00 AM

28 January 2017

9:00 AM

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion Paul Bloom

Bodley Head, pp.290, £18.99

Being against empathy sounds like being against flowers or sparrows. Surely empathy is a good thing? Isn’t one of the main problems with the world that there isn’t enough of the stuff going around? Paul Bloom of Yale University is here to argue otherwise. As he explains, while empathy can be a good thing in certain circumstances, in general it is a poor moral guide. ‘It grounds foolish judgments and often motivates indifference and cruelty.’

As always this depends on definitions. And as Bloom says from the outset, ‘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.’

In all of this Bloom owes — and acknowledges — a certain debt to the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, in particular to Adam Smith. The definition of ‘sympathy’ used by Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (to ‘place ourselves’ in the situation of another ‘and become in some measure the same person with him’) is acknowledged by Bloom to be a working definition of what we understand as empathy. And yet it is not such a good guide as people — particularly people on the political left — presently think. As he shows, the terrain is not simply rife with presumptuousness, it is a deeply uneven arbiter.


For instance if we can see a starving child we may pity that starving child. We may even donate money to alleviate the suffering of that particular starving child. But we may in the process ignore the many other starving children we could as well help but whose photos have not serendipitously been brought before us. Or consider the example of a ten-year-old girl with a fatal disease waiting in line for treatment. People told that such a girl exists and that there are others ahead of them on the list are likely to hold to the principle of the list. But give the girl a name, ask people to imagine what this one particular girl is feeling and they are more likely to move her up the line ahead of other children whose cases may be more deserving. Empathy can easily trump fairness.

If anyone is any doubt that this is a present vulnerability in western policy-making they need only consider the conflict in Syria. The occasions when public, press and politicians most commonly urge more bombing of targets in Syria is whenever an image of a bombed child emerges. ‘Something must be done’ is one thought often caused by a terrible image catching an ‘empathetic’ eye. Yet it may not lead to good actions.

Additionally, we are more likely to have empathy with those like us than those who are different. Empathy is a spotlight with ‘a narrow focus, that shines most brightly on those we love, and that gets dim for those who are strange or different or frightening’. As Bloom bravely acknowledges, ‘I usually get more upset if my internet connection becomes slow and uncertain than when I read about some tragedy in a country I haven’t heard of.’

In such a way, Bloom explains, empathy can easily distort our moral judgments ‘in pretty much the same way that prejudice does’. Even the most ‘empathetic’ person mirrors the feelings of others less well than they think they do, and the action that this motivates is not necessarily what is morally right.

All this is well and good, and we need reminding of it, though not perhaps at quite such length. Yet the work is also a characteristic example of much modern American thought, of the sort perfected by figures such as Michael Sandel. There is nothing especially wrong with it, but it is all a sort of game. Pick a subject that sounds deep (empathy), strike an interesting attitude towards it (against) and cite some ancient-ish philosophers to show depth. Reference some recent neuroscience and sociology studies from other Ivy League universities, stir it about in the lexicon of modern American ‘happiness’ pseudery (human ‘thriving’, ‘flourishing’ etc.) and soon you have a nice 250-page book which dances around a serious subject without quite engaging with it, let alone answering the deep questions it opens up.

If it seems cruel for a note of such cynicism to enter the mind of the reader, it can be mitigated by the fact that the same has clearly infected the mind of the author. Towards the end, to keep the whole thing spinning, Bloom writes about some arguments he wants to respond to before his word limit is up and then says, ‘Then, because everyone loves a surprise ending, I’ll finish off by saying some nice things about empathy.’ The true purpose of the book appears to be to keep the whole Bloom engine running: TED talks, professorial chair, public profile, New Yorker essays. Easy to empathise with. But not a good in itself.

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