Dehumanization Isn't as Bad as We Thought, and Empathy Might Be Worse

Empathy moves us, but it may move us to make an unethical decision. Conversely, says Bloom, dehumanization is not the ultimate evil we typically assume it to be.

Paul Bloom:  So we have all sorts of biases to favor our own group over others. Some of these biases I think are morally respectable. I’m not embarrassed that I love my children more than I love other children. Or love my life more than I love other people. But others are less respectable. We have biases about skin color, about national origin, about even sports teams where these things may seem kind of arbitrary and not very important. But they play a huge role in our lives. We’re hugely biased creatures. We’re naturally carve the world into in group and out group. I do some research on babies and I would argue that this in group, out group distinction comes naturally to us. That you could see it in babies before their first birthday. Even if empathy were to be stripped from our heads. If you were to take a pill that would blot out your empathy you’d still be biased. You’d still favor yours over another group. There are many sources of bias. It seems to be wired into all of our emotions, all of our decision making. But empathy is particularly vulnerable to bias. I use the analogy of it as a spotlight and, in fact, many of the fans of empathy use that analogy as well because it captures the apparent good that empathy can do. It zooms you in and makes you care.

But a spotlight only illuminates a small area and a spotlight only illuminates where you point it. And so empathy is exquisitely subject to bias because our bias tells us where the spotlight is pointed to. I could try to do a rational cost benefit analysis and I can do a pretty good shot at being unbiased and fair adding up the people who suffer from the people who benefit figuring out a solution. But once empathy comes into the mix bias is inevitable. And so empathy making decisions based on empathy exaggerates our in group, out group bias. It brings it to the fore and makes it very hard to override.

So it’s a great question what goes on when we’re so rotten to other people. And one ingredient of it I think really is dehumanization. It’s when we think of the out group not as a people but just as things. And this doesn’t necessarily motivate cruelty. You’re not cruel to things. You’re not cruel to nonhumans but it motivates a sort of moral indifference. And so if you want to ignore the fates of people dehumanizing them is a great way to do so. I’m somewhat skeptical though about the importance of dehumanization in atrocities. I used to think this played a huge role. I was convinced by people who do wonderful work like David Livingston Smith who argue dehumanization is at the core of all evils. But now I’m less certain. There’s been critiques of this work and a lot of critiques point out that the people we hate the most, the people we torment the most, cause them to suffer the most aren’t people we don’t view as people. Because if you don’t view them as people why would you want to make them suffer. It’s people you hate. In other words it’s not people you kind of dehumanize but it’s rather people who you acknowledge their humanity and this is why you want to make them suffer. This is core to wanting to make them suffer.

I was on the radio earlier today and before me there was a segment on revenge porn. And it was chilling. It was typically men in relationships and relationships go bad. And then they go on to post intimate photos and videos of their girlfriend on porn sites, send them to their family members, registered them to sexual offender sites and STD sites. Put on their address and contact information online to try to goad other men into sexually assaulting them. And you think about what happens with behaviors as evil as that and it’s not that these men are thinking oh, their girlfriends are nothing. They’re not even human. It’s rather they think their girlfriends have committed this horrible moral wrong and they want them to suffer. So I think that in some ways sadism and cruelty of all sorts involves a recognition of the humanity of the other person. Because this recognition is what fuels the cruelty. If you thought that they weren’t human you may want to eradicate them or get rid of them but you wouldn’t want them to suffer so much.

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom likens empathy to a spotlight, shining down brightly to illuminate an actor on a stage. The analogy brings together two opposed camps: those who feel empathy is essential to making good ethical choices, and those who, like Bloom, feel that empathy is just another word for bias. As he explains, bias can be good or bad, but it always emphasizes the suffering of a small group at the expense of a larger set of people. Empathy moves us, but it may move us to make an unethical decision. Conversely, says Bloom, dehumanization is not the ultimate evil we typically assume it to be.


Paul Bloom's most recent book is Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

Why the singular “They” is Merriam-Webster's word of the year

"They" has taken on a not-so-new meaning lately. This earned it the scrutiny it needed to win.

Pixabay by pexels
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Merriam-Webster has announced "they" as the word of the year.
  • The selection was based on a marked increase in traffic to the online dictionary page.
  • Runners up included "quid pro quo" and "crawdad."
Keep reading Show less

'The West' is, in fact, the world's biggest gated community

A review of the global "wall" that divides rich from poor.

Image: TD Architects
Strange Maps
  • Trump's border wall is only one puzzle piece of a global picture.
  • Similar anxieties are raising similar border defenses elsewhere.
  • This map shows how, as a result, "the West" is in fact one large gated community.
Keep reading Show less

Public health crisis: Facebook ads misinform about HIV prevention drug

Facebook's misinformation isn't just a threat to democracy. It's endangering lives.

Photo Credit: Paul Butler / Flickr
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
  • Over the years, Facebook's hands-off ad policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its political ads.
  • Unregulated "surveillance capitalism" commodifies people's personal information and makes them vulnerable to sometimes misleading ads.

LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.

The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.

LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy

According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.

LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.

In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."

What Facebook’s policy risks 

Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.

But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.

"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.

Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism

To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.

It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.

But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.