Against Empathy (Paul Bloom)

There are only so many books a person can (reasonably) read.  We all have a limited amount of time in our lives, and have so many other demands upon our time.  From careers, to family, to other hobbies, to our ridiculous needs for food and sleep.  That lack of time is one of the central sources of anguish in my life.  What does that have to do with this book?  Well, I didn’t want to like it.  The fact that I loved it was a source of annoyance, initially.

I’m always working on four or five books, with many in the pipeline.  I rarely have to look around for something to read, since there’s always SOMETHING just around the corner.  As of this writing, I have 370 unread books on my Kindle (I remove them once I’m done).  That isn’t counting all of the books strewn around my office and home that I’m dying to read.  When something as unexpected as Against Empathy pops onto my radar, half of me hopes that I’ll read a bit and then move on to something else in my queue.

This time, that didn’t happen.  I couldn’t get enough of this book, and have brought it up over the past week and a half in more conversations than I can put my finger on.  It’s that best kind of nonfiction book: the kind of nonfiction book that burrows down into your unconscious and sits there, subtly altering the lens through which you see the world.

This book is about empathy.  I suppose it goes without saying, just based on its title, that the central argument here is fairly controversial.  Paul Bloom has put together such an intricately thought-out thesis, though, that I don’t feel most people could read Against Empathy and come away in complete disagreement.  Empathy as a concept, as something to be aspired to, as something to be taught to our children, is very important to most people.  Once you look at the actual ramifications of the concept, though, it reveals its flaws.  And flaws there are, a-plenty.  In fact, I’m now very comfortable with arguing against empathy as a way of life (and have begun to do so).

Lest you think this shift on my part is no big deal, let me explain something: I’m a social worker.  I’m also a behavioral health professional, specializing in mental health and addiction.  In addition to this, I teach aspiring social workers in graduate school.  I’m deeply committed to social justice.  But I can no longer focus my efforts (with my students, my clients, or those therapists and case managers that I supervise) on increasing the level of empathy that exists in the world.  Because I now believe that that would be a negative thing (and there are enough negative things on our planet to fight against already).

The format of Against Empathy is a simple one: Each chapter builds on what comes before it, focusing on a specific aspect of empathy (from its definition, to empathy development in children, to empathy as used to develop large-scale policy, to a focus on empathy in sociopathy, to empathy and the concept of evil).  Many of the chapters were initially essays written by Bloom, that he has since refined and edited, adding his new thoughts until each chapter reached the form it takes in this manuscript.  By the time you reach the end, the argument has been so well-developed that I found myself nodding along, racing along with the author to each new conclusion.  And believe me, it is a very persuasive argument.

How would you define empathy?  I would agree with Mr. Bloom that empathy means the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes–to see the world through someone else’s viewpoint–to feel what someone else is feeling.  That might intuitively feel like a good thing to you, right?  It just makes sense–if I understand how you are feeling right now, and feel that way too, then won’t I make decisions that will benefit you?  And wouldn’t that be better for the world?  Actually, it wouldn’t.

The fact is, as Against Empathy very accurately points out, any time we start basing our decisions on our use of empathy, we make some very poor decisions.  Think about why that might be: why would I make worse choices regarding you if I’m relying on the way that I believe you are feeling right now?  Well, first off, we become biased toward or against other people.  Those biases lead to some terrible judgment calls.

Take this example: in one study, one group of participants were given information about a little girl on the organ transplant list.  They were told all about the way that she felt with her illness, and asked to imagine the pain she experienced every day, etc.  The other group of participants got basic information about the girl, but not the feeling aspects of her situation.  When given the choice, the first group pretty universally opted to move the girl up the transplant list (while the second group didn’t).  Why is that a problem?  That first group’s feelings about (and empathy toward) the girl led them to make a decision that would have harmed those higher on the transplant list.  They were initially higher on that list than she was due to the fact that their diseases had progressed further than hers–they were, objectively, in more need of a new organ than she was.  But empathy led the study participants to disregard the feelings and needs of the others on the list and led them to help her skip the line.  That’s a problem.  It’s pretty easy to see how this process could lead us to make some bad choices.

What about public policy that is shaped by lawmakers, advocates, or others who have a personal emotional (empathetic) connection to someone impacted by that policy?  Most policy does, in reality, come from this place.  Those decisions can tend to be very biased either toward or against specific groups of people, based on emotion.  Look at some of the biggest debates of our time, politically-speaking: gun control, abortion, and a hundred others.  When people advocate for gun control, they speak in terms of the innocent child getting accidentally shot.  When people advocate against it, they speak in terms of the innocent person being victimized, who needed the gun to protect him or her.  All of these arguments come from empathy toward others, not from a place of rational analysis and basic goodheartedness.  Our empathy can blind us to what truly makes sense, and that’s a tragedy.

The chapter discussing empathetic development in children is fascinating–Bloom’s analysis of the components we tend to label “empathy” that are actually other things entirely is worth the price of the book on its own.  The chapter on sociopathy is also brilliant–I’d never thought of it before I read this, but he makes a series of genius points here.  We often think of someone who is capable of being a serial killer, for instance, as being without empathy.  In fact, we mental health professionals sometimes provide empathy skills training to people with antisocial personality disorder.  But this makes no sense if we consider how adroitly many serial killers and others with a history of victimizing others have proven themselves to be at picking up on the emotional cues of those they prey upon.  How could Ted Bundy attract so many women into his car, even as women were dying right and left?  His ability to use empathy must have been off the charts!  No, people who victimize others in this way have plenty of empathy–it’s just that they ALSO have the ability to turn it off when they need to actually harm someone.  This makes perfect sense if you think about it, doesn’t it?

I also very much enjoyed Bloom’s section on the use of empathy by the helping professions (as that’s my area of expertise).  Again, it makes perfect sense to consider his argument that what my clients need is NOT empathy from me–why would someone in the throes of a massive panic attack, or a major depressive episode, need me to experience their debilitating pain, anxiety, and depression?  They’re experts in their own pain, and don’t need me to feel that pain–they need me to understand it, yes, but how does it help them for me to echo their own feelings?  Of course it doesn’t.  I can’t hope to provide any kind of a helpful perspective on their symptoms if I’m feeling them myself.

This feeds right into one of my long-held opinions, as well.  I really, really dislike the belief that nobody without a history of addiction can be of assistance to clients in that area.  We don’t put this restriction on most other areas of expertise–why would we insist that all oncologists have a history of cancer?  Besides a widely-held belief that addiction is somehow different from every other condition known to man (which I tend to pin on ideas of sin and deep stigma), I think this fallacy can be linked to our culture’s emphasis on empathy.  We believe that nobody can really understand addiction unless they’ve lived it, and that you have to understand it to treat it.  It shouldn’t be a surprise to you at this point that I disagree with that assertion.

I’ve made it this far into my review without even mentioning the subtitle of the book, interestingly enough.  The book’s entire title is Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.  Oh, did you think Mr. Bloom (and me, by extension) was arguing that we shouldn’t care about people?  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  He doesn’t think we should take caring out of the equation at all.  He’s just arguing for “rational compassion”, compassion based on weighing all of the facts, not just our perception of the emotions at play in a given scenario.  He also emphasizes the difference between cognitive empathy (recognizing and understanding the emotions of someone else) as opposed to FEELING those emotions ourselves.  I think that cognitive empathy is vital to our world, and Bloom agrees with me.  We must be kind, we must be compassionate, we must care about each other.  We can’t pursue positive change in the world without those things.  But we must also guard against the sloppiness, the mistakes, even the laziness, of traditional empathy.  Compassion is not empathy, and that’s the whole point.

I loved this book.  In spite of my desire to read a few pages and move on, I was physically unable to put it down (to the detriment of my sleep schedule).  It has changed how I conduct job interviews, it has changed how I work with my clients, and it has made me hyper-aware of just how often we mental health professionals discuss empathy among ourselves, behind closed doors.  If you read Against Empathy, I would expect you to go into it prepared to argue against his main point(s).  I would also expect you to come out the other end with several of your deeply-held beliefs changed, as mine were.  If you are interested in thinking about thinking, or thinking about other people’s thinking, then I would highly recommend this book to you.  If you read the entire thing and DON’T agree with me (and the author) on these points, I’d love to have that debate with you!  You can buy it from Amazon here.  And you really should.  (Just think about how happy it would make the author if you do.)





















2 thoughts on “Against Empathy (Paul Bloom)

  1. I really appreciated this take on Bloom’s work, specifically from a social worker’s p.o.v., I linked this article in my own post prosyletizing the book. Have you listened to Sam Harris’ podcast interview w Bloom?


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