Thursday, June 13, 2013


Psychologist and cognitive scientist Paul Bloom had an article in The New Yorker a week or two ago, The Case Against Empathy, that has generated a LOT of conversation and controversy. After all, scientists and neuroscientists and philosophers have been telling us that empathy is a core human bonding skill. Bloom's argument counters this perspective; in essence, "Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We're often at our best when we're smart enough not to rely on it."

Empathy is deaf to facts and figures; it’s engaged by the “identifiable victim effect.” Illustration by Harry Campbell.

In an article at the Harvard University Press blog, James Dawes (author of Evil Men) offered a rebuttal to Bloom's argument:
The feeling for others that we call empathy might often be a thin disguise for narcissism and even voyeurism. We think we are drawn to and captivated by stories of other people’s trauma because we are caring creatures, because empathy compels us. But perhaps we are drawn to stories of suffering because we feel an insecure need to display to ourselves, through our performed empathetic response, our moral worth. Or perhaps we are drawn to stories of suffering because some of us have the privilege of being bored. As Eva Hoffman put it when criticizing the interest people take in the stories of Holocaust survivors: we have “significance envy.” We borrow from the tragedy of others to make our empty days feel purposeful and high-stakes. We are emotional parasites. 
But let’s put all that aside. Let’s say our empathy really is empathy, that it really is about caring for the other. Even then, empathy can be dangerous. If we don’t get close enough to the other, our empathy is thin and superficial. We under-identify. But if we get too close, we over-identify. Our empathy can erase the other; we can find ourselves emotionally standing-in for the other. 
But let’s put that aside, too. Let’s say we get the distance just right, seeing the other in the fullness of their identity but also respecting their difference from us, respecting (excuse for a moment the jargon) that they are unassimilable. Even then, empathy can be dangerous. One of the primary arguments for empathy is that it promotes helping behavior. But what if the opposite is true? What if empathy doesn’t give us the energy for action? What if it uses up our energy for action? Taking the case of our empathetic responses to fictional stories, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued in 1758: 
In giving our tears to these fictions, we have satisfied all the rights of humanity without having to give anything more of ourselves; whereas unfortunate people in person would require attention from us, relief, consolation, and work, which would involve us in their pains and would require at least the sacrifice of our indolence, from all of which we are quite content to be exempt. It could be said that our heart closes itself for fear of being touched at our expense. In the final accounting, when a man has gone to admire fine actions in stories and to cry for imaginary miseries, what more can be asked of him? Is he not satisfied with himself? Does he not applaud his fine soul? Has he not acquitted himself of all that he owes to virtue by the homage which has just rendered it? What more could one want of him? That he practice it himself? He has no role to play; he is no actor.
Empathy—our ability to feel for others—is at the heart of what it means to be a human. Empathy morally improves me. Empathy gives meaning to my life. Empathy is the driver of historical progress and our best hope for the future. I believe all of this. I really do. But I also think the case against empathy is strong. And I think it is useful. To be satisfied with empathy is the easiest thing in the world. To get critical distance from it is hard, but necessary. My colleagues and I, all teachers of human rights, often joke about the “squishy” empathy we see in our first-year students. It is a necessary starting point, but we hope when they leave us four years later that their empathy will be sharper, more weather-beaten and scrappy. That kind of empathy, we believe, really might help change the world.
 Meanwhile, over at Very Bad Wizards, they did a podcast on Bloom's argument with Bloom participating (second half of show)


Episode Audio 
Download MP3 Audio [39.9MB]


Paul Bloom joins us in the second segment for a lively discussion about the value of empathy as a guide our moral decisions. And in our first scoop, we talk about Paul's new book (coming in November) Just Babies: The Origin of Good and Evil, racist babies, and how 80s sitcoms changed the world. In the first segment, Dave and Tamler face the music and try to respond to a listener's criticisms of their episode on slurs and offensiveness (Episode 22).

For another perspective, be sure to check out Jesse Prinz's paper on empathy and morality.

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