Scott Russell Sanders is the author, most recently, of “Earth Works: Selected Essays,” and “Dancing in Dreamtime,” a collection of stories.

In the aftermath of the most virulent U.S. presidential campaign since the Civil War, readers might approach with skepticism a book titled “Against Empathy.” Isn’t our rancorous, hate-riven society suffering from a shortage rather than a surplus of empathy? Don’t we need to feel one another’s pain? On the contrary, Paul Bloom argues, “if we want to be good and caring people, if we want to make the world a better place, then we are better off without empathy.”

Bloom, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Yale, draws on evolutionary theory and studies of the brain to make the case that empathy — “the act of feeling what you believe other people feel” — is “morally corrosive.” He notes that lists some 1,500 books with the word “empathy” in the title or subtitle, virtually all of which celebrate the human capacity for mirroring the feelings of others. His goal is to challenge that consensus. “On balance, empathy is a negative in human affairs,” he insists. “It’s sugary soda, tempting and delicious and bad for us.”

So why is empathy bad for us? Why is it, in Bloom’s view, “a terrible guide to moral judgment”? Because it’s biased, favoring those who are close to us, our relations and friends, and those with whom we identify by race, religion or other markers. It’s narrow, focusing our care on a single person or a few people, ignoring everyone else. It may lead parents to avoid disciplining their children for fear of making them unhappy. It may cause burnout in therapists who take on the suffering of their patients. It blinds us to empirical evidence and to future costs of present actions. His gravest charge is that “our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others.”

These and other indictments against empathy are announced in the opening pages and repeated often in the pages that follow, as if out of concern that readers, like jurors, might forget the bill of particulars. More likely, this repetitiveness reflects the book’s origins. Bloom mentions having “published articles in popular outlets describing earlier versions of these ideas” — outlets including the New Yorker, the Atlantic and the New York Times. Had the overlapping material from those articles been edited out, and had key claims against empathy been examined in greater depth, this would have been a leaner and more cogent book.

"Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion," by Paul Bloom (Ecco)

Consider this claim, for example: “It is because of empathy that we often enact savage laws or enter into terrible wars; our feeling for the suffering of the few leads to disastrous consequences for the many.” Which laws does he have in mind? Which wars? He doesn’t say. Readers might wonder if his critique would help explain anti-gay legislation or “torture memos,” drone warfare or the invasion of Iraq; but Bloom does not mention these or any other illustrations.

Or consider his assertion that, in the face of climate change, “empathy favors doing nothing. If you do act, many identifiable victims — real people whom we can feel empathy for — will be harmed by increased gas prices, business closures, increased taxes, and so on. The millions or billions of people who at some unspecified future date will suffer the consequences of our current inaction are, by contrast, pale statistical abstractions.” Certainly, our failure to reduce carbon emissions will impose untold suffering on coming generations. But is concern about our friends’ having to pay more for gas really a major cause of that failure? What about selfishness? What about gluttony? What about bribery of politicians and propaganda by the fossil fuel industry? What about intellectual sloth?

Bloom himself seems ambivalent about his indictment. On the third page, he writes, “I am against empathy, and one of the goals of this book is to persuade you to be against empathy too.” On the next-to-last page, he writes: “As this book comes to an end, I worry that I have given the impression that I’m against empathy. Well, I am — but only in the moral domain.”

If not empathy, then, what should guide us in our efforts “to alleviate suffering and make the world a better place”? Reason, Bloom answers — impartial and dispassionate reason. Taking his profession as a model, he champions rational analysis of moral issues because it “draws on observation and on principles of logic, with scientific practice being the paradigmatic case of reason at work.”

By all means, let us heed the findings of scientists. Let us emulate their appeal to evidence, their scrupulous observations, their devotion to truth. But where does moral guidance come in? The practice of science entails no ethical standards aside from crediting the work of other researchers and reporting one’s own work honestly. There is nothing unscientific about experimenting on human subjects, designing nuclear weapons or guiding the search for more fossil fuels on an overheated planet.

Insofar as we condemn such actions, we derive our sense of right and wrong from sources outside science — from parents and teachers, from religion and books, from the examples of friends and neighbors, as well as from reasoning about costs and consequences. But we also draw on the evolutionary legacy that Bloom believes we would be better off without: our ability to feel what others feel. That ability is more capacious than he suggests. We are able to feel sympathy, and therefore to care, for strangers as well as friends, for persons quite different from ourselves as well as those with whom we identify, and for persons not yet born.

Against Empathy
The Case for Rational Compassion

By Paul Bloom

Ecco. 285 pp. $26.99