America, we’re told, is suffering from a lack of empathy. In many of his speeches, President Obama has traced our social divisions back to “the biggest deficit we have … an empathy deficit.” But a new book, “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, claims this isn’t true at all. Bloom argues that the majority of society’s problems — and the problems of our own lives — can be traced to an excess of empathy.
For the latest in our blog series, Inspiring Reads, we spoke to Bloom about why he believes empathy keeps us closed-minded, plays to our biases and can actually inspire great cruelty.
Q: Let’s start with the obvious question: Is your beef with “empathy” a semantic one?
No. People do use the term “empathy” in all kinds of ways, often as a synonym for niceness. I’m not against niceness or being good. I’m not against being moral, compassionate and kind. I’m for all of these things, which is why I’m against emotional empathy.
Cognitive empathy is different. That is an effort to understand what is going on in other people’s minds. This is neither moral nor immoral and can be used in all kinds of ways: to seduce, to calm, to bully, to torment. If you want to make someone’s life a living hell or if you want to buy them a birthday present or if you want to console them, then understanding what makes them tick is an extremely powerful tool.
Emotional empathy, however, is when we feel the feelings of others. Many people, including many psychologists, philosophers and theologians, believe that this act of feeling the feelings of others is what makes us good people. I argue the opposite. I argue that emotional empathy distorts goodness.
Q: How’s that possible?
First, while empathy often directs our moral decision-making, it reflects our biases. It favors our own kind, so it’s very easy to feel empathy for people who are part of your group or community. It’s easy to empathize with pretty people or those who don’t scare us, but people radically overstate their ability to empathize. We’re not good at it. It’s almost impossible to empathize with people we hate.
Empathy is also innumerate. It is the reason we care more about the child stuck in a well than the billions of people impacted by climate change. The plight of the billion is vague and statistical, while the story of one child draws us in.
And, finally, empathy makes us cruel.
Q: How can it make us cruel?
Empathy catalyzes anger. It can be incredibly morally corrosive. It weighs heavily on the side of the aggressor, while making us oblivious to the costs of cruelty, violence and even war.
In the American South, for example, lynchings were typically motivated by stories of white women who were raped by African American men. The stories were told to elicit real empathy in those who committed the murders. And in 1930s Germany, attacks on Jews were often motivated by stories of Jewish pedophiles preying on gentile children. It was easy for people to empathize with children and their families.
Acts of violence and cruelty aren’t usually committed by people devoid of emotion or moral feelings; they are carried out by people with very strong emotions and empathetic responses. I have no idea what was really up with the gunman who walked into the pizza place [Comet Ping Pong] in D.C. [on Dec. 4], but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was someone who felt very deeply that something terrible was happening there.
Q: You suggest in your book that one way to mitigate empathy is seek out facts, but we’re living in a world where facts are made up, manipulated or ignored. How can we push against this post-fact wave, or is this just how it is now?
If I believed we’re stuck in this, I would give up. But I don’t. I believe that people can be persuaded. I believe we are capable of having emotions and attempting rational and reasoned moral decision-making. I believe a person can acknowledge their biases and know that their biases shouldn’t have a bearing on the outcome of their decisions.
The larger problem is the politics of empathy. Since by law every conversation has to come back to Donald Trump sooner or later, let’s consider the president-elect: He is the leader of our times who has most successfully harnessed empathy. He regularly uses the suffering of people to elicit empathetic responses in his audiences, like when he talked about a young woman who was killed by an illegal immigrant.
He is perhaps an extreme example, but it’s worth remembering that empathy is a tool all politicians use to argue for anything they want. It has been weaponized on all sides: empathy for the young woman vs. empathy for the fetus, empathy for the immigrant vs. empathy for the unemployed, and so forth. Each side trots out their victim — the guy whose life was ruined by Obamacare and the guy whose life was saved by Obamacare. It is a stupid way to motivate policy, because all policy has winners and losers.
Q: If our leaders are pushing a more empathetic and less rational agenda, how can we correct for that?
Don’t give in to the view that we’re stuck in a post-fact world. That would be like accepting racism, sexism or cruelty as things we have to comply with. We don’t. Racism, sexism and cruelty reflect a failure to use reason and rationality. We’re at our best when we try to think carefully and impartially, when we weigh the costs against the benefits. When our decisions are driven by emotion, be it lust or shame or guilt or even empathy, we become worse.
And ask for numbers-based arguments. We have to develop appropriate social and cultural practices so appeals to empathy and gut feelings will be laughed out of the room.
Q: What do you say to those who claim that the problem in the 2016 election cycle was a complete lack of empathy for the other side?
Plainly, if more people who lived in certain areas voted for Clinton, she would have won, but I don’t think there’s any reason to believe it was because she didn’t empathize with these voters enough. More likely, they just didn’t like her or her policies. They didn’t think she would represent their interests.
Q: After this past election, many people are nervous about the holidays. What would you tell folks who are gathering with family and friends who voted differently than they did?
It will be extremely annoying for some people to walk into a room full of those who are elated Trump won or who are depressed Clinton lost, but we’re separate people. Empathy requires a certain amount of arrogance on the part of a Clinton supporter who thinks he can fully put himself in the shoes of a Trump supporter, and vice versa. Fortunately, there are alternatives.
If you want to know about someone’s life or experience, then ask them and take their answer seriously. We don’t need empathy. We need love, compassion and kindness. Without kindness, we’re really screwed.
Read more from our Inspiring Reads series: