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Who's in the Video

Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. An internationally recognized expert on the psychology of child development, social reasoning, and morality, he has won[…]
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John Templeton Foundation

Empathy is a poor moral guide. The reason is because we naturally feel the most empathy for the people who look, speak, and behave just like us.

While empathy — that is, putting ourselves in another person’s shoes and feeling what they feel — is certainly good in many cases, it’s not always the appropriate response to a situation.

Instead of empathy, we should practice rational compassion.

PAUL BLOOM: I'm against empathy. I'm not against empathy for everything, I think empathy is a lot of fun when you're watching a movie, empathy for a fictional character. I think empathy is an important part of all sorts of exciting activities, but I'm against empathy as a moral guide. I think we could do better. The sense of empathy I'm most interested in is when you, in a sense, put yourself in another person's shoes and feel what they feel. Psychologists call this 'Emotional empathy.' A lot of people think this is core to being a good person. 

A few years ago, I wrote a book called "Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion," and I argued this form of empathy, though it might seem wonderful, is actually a very poor moral guide. Who do you feel empathy for? Who do you most naturally put yourself in the shoes of? Well, we know the answer to this from study after study, after study- we naturally feel empathy for people who look like us, who speak our language, who we feel are safe, and because of that, empathy is, of all of the human feelings, perhaps the most biased and parochial. When you put a book out with a title "Against Empathy," you gotta expect a certain amount of blow back, and a lot of people responded to me with their own experiences and their own arguments, sometimes people agreed with me, sometimes they argued against me. 

So one argument against the purpose of my book is: Although empathy could have negative effects, could be biased, could provoke us into violence, could cause all sorts of trouble, it also could have good effects, and I concede this in my book. And so some people have said, "Look, if you add it all up, the positive benefits of empathy outweigh the negative." I'm not always convinced about that sort of math, but even if it were true, we have moral capacities that are better than empathy. Another objection is that empathy, whatever you think of its role when it comes to war and charity and broad, moral decisions, is a necessary part of an intimate relationship. One philosopher in a critique of me said, "If my wife comes in and she's mad at somebody at work- it's all well and good for me to say, 'I love you very much and I understand where you're coming from,' but isn't what she wants me to share her anger, get angry with her?" And my response to that is, 'It's kind of right.' I don't deny that. 

There are cases where what we look for in a relationship with others is that sort of shared feeling. You're mad, you want me to be mad too. My critical response is there's all sorts of cases where that's not what we want. My favorite example here is anxiety. I go to my partner and I'm very anxious, I'm stressed out. Do I want her to start sharing my feeling of anxiety? To look at me and say, "Oh my God, it's horrible. Yeah, it's horrible." No! I want her to be calm. I want her to say, "I love you. Calm down. Let me tell you how to think about it differently." Sometimes what we want from people isn't a mirror of us, it's rather, another intelligent, caring, loving person responding to us as a distinct being, and working to make our life better. And I think, sometimes, empathy is exactly what we do not want. 

Now, if I'm gonna say this, I have to come up with something that will replace empathy, I'm not saying we should give up on morality. So my book is called "Against Empathy," but the subtitle of my book is "The Case for Rational Compassion," and therein lies the substitute, I think. And the substitute is two parts: One is rationality. If I'm going to help somebody, I have to know what's the best way to help them, sometimes what might seem to be the best way to help them simply makes things worse. Sometimes figuring out what to do to make the world a better place is an extraordinarily difficult task, too big for one brain, and we do our best when, as communities, we work together to think about that. So that's rationality. Rationality itself is great at pursuing ends, but it doesn't provide ends, it doesn't provide goals. 

What you need is compassion- you need to care. So what I argue in the book is that our best decisions, our fairest, our most equitable ones, are done through a combination of a rational judgment of how does one make the world a better place plus compassion, love, caring. But not the sort of love and caring that requires you to put yourself in another person's shoes. Even if empathy is, on balance, has a positive effect, compassion does better. If we could reconfigure our moral attitudes to be less biased, less parochial, more with our head and less with our heart, we would do better.