“Against Empathy”: Rational Compassion Instead

…I’ve come to realize that taking a position against empathy is like announcing that you hate kittens—a statement so outlandish it can only be a joke. And so I’ve learned to clarify, to explain that I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide. Paul Bloom, Boston Review

The above-cited article is one Paul Bloom wrote while working on his new book Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion. His choice among many for the definition of empathy is, he says, the most commonly used one: “It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain.”

It’s an imperfect trait, says Bloom: “Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, ‘If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will’.”

Compassion, Bloom argues, can be a more helpful response than empathy. “Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.”

Jesse Singal, The Cut: “Bloom defines compassion as ‘simply caring for people, wanting them to thrive.’ It’s a general feeling of goodwill toward our fellow humans in general, not just toward our own tribe…He admits that this emotion, too, has problems, but argues they are far fewer in number than empathy’s.”

As reviewer Jennifer Senior, New York Times, puts it: “His point…is that empathy is untempered by reason, emanating from the murky bayou of the gut. He prefers a kind of rational compassion — a mixture of caring and detached cost-benefit analysis. His book is a systematic attempt to show why this is so.”

Senior explains further: “If you live in a state of hypercommunion with others, you run the risk of emotional depletion — or ’empathetic distress,’ as a psychologist might say. It’s useless in the face of suffering. Better to answer with compassion, which doesn’t totally subsume the self.”

Singal, while apparently sold on Bloom’s concepts, has this critique: “…Against Empathy stops short of fully laying out a plan to spread the rational-compassion gospel, which is a shame. After all, all of the world’s dictators and hucksters and charlatans and powerful people in general are aware of the power of empathy.”

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