The Perils of Empathy (And Definitions)

A special holiday post on why empathy isn’t necessarily a good thing. Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy argues that empathy isn’t the panacea it is sometime held up to be.

Definitions Matter

At its heart Bloom makes a relatively plausible argument seem outrageous by relying on our generally sloppy use of definitions. He is clearly happy to wind some people up, specifically those who use the word empathy as shorthand for “anything good”. To be fair he isn’t against being good. He has a much narrower definition of empathy in mind. By empathy Bloom certainly doesn’t mean all caring about others. Nor does he mean by empathy when we are intellectually empathetic and can read what people want. He argues this “cognitive empathy” is not what he is against, although it is not necessary admirable. Cognitive empathy is about understanding what other people are thinking which can allow you to be nice to them. If you know what people want you can buy them better presents if you want to,  so in that sense it is good. Sadly it can also allow you to more effectively cheat and abuse them. This seems a fair point. There may be a positive association between intellectually understanding what other people are going through and being nice to them, but it is fair from a perfect matching. Con-men sometimes very well understand what other people want and use this against them.

When Bloom attacks empathy he means emotional empathy; feeling what other people feel. This can motivate you to help people so it could be good. Bloom, however, does note potential problems. A key one is the spotlight nature of empathy. When we feel someone’s pain their needs, quite understandably, get prioritized over the needs of others whose pain we don’t feel. Maybe if we randomly empathized this might be okay but Bloom is on strong ground when he says that we tend to empathize more with certain people over others. We empathize with those who are like us or are attractive (well done if these are the same) and generally cuter victims. This can lead us to feel passionately about injustices towards our in-groups, those we identify with — but not as much about other injustices. We can end up worrying about suffering but only if those suffering are from our country/ethnic background, etc… I agree that this is ethically questionable. Furthermore, there are public policy concerns with too much empathy. We may be less forgiving to transgressors — which might feel right but might be bad public policy. We might end up being excessively punitive towards criminals, the death penalty for being rude to and making your daughter cry, which isn’t necessarily going to make the world a better place.

Rational Compassion

He argues that the good things about emotional empathy — the focus on making the world a better place, can be generated through rational compassion. This involves looking at how you can help people in a more dispassionate way. You don’t need to feel their pain, or understand what they are going through, you just need to know that pain is bad and work to prevent it. What he says seems true to me but it is likely harder to motivate with rational compassion. Rational compassion could substitute for emotional empathy but will it?

Emotional empathy can be good, motivate us to help, and be bad, motivate us to help the wrong people, overeact etc… Where theory is on both sides it becomes largely an empirical question. By this I mean we need to ask “in practice do the good bits outweigh the bad”? To be fair this is almost impossible to show and I don’t think he does. He doesn’t really convincingly show that empathy, even using his definition, is on balance bad in the world. To my mind he only succeeds in making a reasonable case that it is possible that emotional empathy could be on balance bad. As such I wouldn’t try and get rid of all your emotional empathy quite yet. Still it is worth having a think whether feeling someone’s pain is necessary before we help them.

Overall, I would say it is a fair criticism to say that he overeggs his point, (God forbid that this was to sell a few more books), but at least he has an interesting idea to discuss. If nothing else Bloom shows us that definitions matter when we are having a discussion.

Read: Paul Bloom (2016) Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Ecco