Against Empathy: Why Emotion-Based Politics Lead to Inaction

The ranking of empathy from highest to lowest goes liberals, conservatives, libertarians. But the difference is minor, says Paul Bloom. Typically the debate isn’t all over whether or not to empathize – it’s over who to empathize with.

Paul Bloom: When I tell people I’ve been writing a book against empathy often they look at me suspiciously because most of my friends are liberal and say wait, is this some sort of conservative book? Are you attacking liberals and progressives? And it’s a natural question to ask because a lot of people associate empathy with liberal and progressive politics and they associate other traits with conservatives. The conservatives would say they associate reason with conservatives. The liberals would say we associate selfishness and self-interest with conservatives. But one thing people often agree about is that on both sides is that the liberals are more empathic for better or worse. And, if so, then my attack on empathy is an attack on liberal politics. And that would certainly be interesting. But that’s not the way I’m going to go. I think there’s some experimental evidence that actually liberals are a little bit more impacted than conservatives. There’s empathy tests that you could give and it turns that liberal score a little bit higher than conservatives. With Libertarians below everybody kind of on the floor here. But it’s not a big difference. And it turns out that when it comes to political debates typically the debate isn’t all over whether or not to empathize, it’s over who to empathize with. Do you empathize with black teenagers who are shot by cops. Or do you empathize with cops who have a difficult and dangerous job. Do you empathize with the parents of a toddler who got shot by a gun due to lax gun laws.

Or do you empathize with somebody who is raped because she is not permitted, has no right to own a gun to defend herself. Do you empathize with the woman or the fetus. Do you empathize with the beneficiary of affirmative action who otherwise wouldn’t get into a college or with the white kid who is going to get in because his grades are great but isn’t going to get in because he’s white. And so on and so forth. Every sort of argument where liberals and conservatives face off against, each side points to somebody to empathize with and argues that way. And I think this is a horrible way to have political discussions. Any policy of any scope from affirmative action to gun laws to abortion laws is going to have some winners and losers. And inevitably people who suffer upon any application of law. And so pointing out oh, let me tell you the story of somebody who suffered. Somebody who suffered because of Obamacare. Somebody who suffered because we’re getting rid of Obamacare. It’s a stupid argument. It’s an appeal to the passion while what you really want to know is statistics. You want to know well how many people are suffering. How many people are better off this way and how many people are worse off that way.

Now I said for many political debates it’s always a question of who you empathize with. But not for all of them. There’s some political positions, some moral and social positions where empathy just favors one side of the issue. But I think it tends to favor the wrong side. So one of these issues is climate change. A lot of people are concerned about climate change because they believe I think with a lot of evidence that unchecked it will lead to suffering of millions or perhaps billions of people. But there’s nobody to empathize with. There’s no single person you could point to and say see that crying child. She’s crying because of climate change. It doesn’t work that way. The argument is statistical. On the other hand if you were to try to respond to climate change by raising gasoline taxes or doing some sort of other social intervention then there will be crying children. There’ll be people who suffer. So empathy set argues for inaction where I think the right policy would involve some sort of action. A second example is free speech where empathy I think is always on the side of a censor. Because if I say something that offends somebody on the right, on the left. If I mock some beloved figure. If I use some terms that some group doesn’t like people will suffer. And if you’re empathic with their suffering that’ll be a good argument for shutting me up. On the other hand if you have rigorous laws preventing people from speech, hate speech laws, anti-free speech laws it’s hard to see the empathic concern here.

The arguments in favor of free speech don’t tend to be empathic arguments. They tend to be arguments based on moral principles like people should have a right to communicate themselves. Long-term utilitarian benefits like society is better off if everybody has a voice. Selfish benefits of the sort. If I let you say your stuff that I don’t like you’ll let me say my stuff that you don’t like. But they aren’t empathic arguments. And here again empathy favors one side of the story which is to shut people up, to censor people. And here again I think it favors the wrong side of the story.

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


The title of Paul Bloom's latest book may ruffle a few feathers; it's called Against Empathy. Empathy has come into its own of late, held on a pedestal as one of the most glorified emotional skills – but Bloom argues that at times it can cloud our judgement. When it comes to political debates, typically the debate isn’t all over whether or not to empathize, it’s over who to empathize with, he says. There are some political issues, such as climate change and free speech, in which empathy favors one side of the issue, and encourages inaction over action.

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