Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

New York Post Best Book of 2016We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. Many of our wisest policy-makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it.Nothing could be farther from the truth, argues Yale researcher Paul Bloom. In AGAINST EM...

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Title:Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion
Author:Paul Bloom
Rating:
ISBN:0062339338
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:285 pages

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion Reviews

  • Charlene Lewis- Estornell
    Feb 21, 2017

    Absolutely BRILLIANT! This is a must read for anyone interested in things like:

    decision-making

    empathy

    ingroup/outgroup dynamics

    policy making

    social constructs

    inequality

    logic v. emotional regulation on a grand scale

    Why out of 293 Goodreads reviews does this book only have a 3.75? I can't say for sure, especially since I have not taken the time to read all the negative reviews, but I suspect they come from people who pride themselves on being "a good person", because they identify as an empathetic

    Absolutely BRILLIANT! This is a must read for anyone interested in things like:

    decision-making

    empathy

    ingroup/outgroup dynamics

    policy making

    social constructs

    inequality

    logic v. emotional regulation on a grand scale

    Why out of 293 Goodreads reviews does this book only have a 3.75? I can't say for sure, especially since I have not taken the time to read all the negative reviews, but I suspect they come from people who pride themselves on being "a good person", because they identify as an empathetic person. They see that as a positive thing, no matter what the result of their emotional decisions. But, just as we came to understand that oxytocin is not just the "love and trust drug" and that it is also a key regulator of ingroup/ outgroup thinking (which results in poor treatment for the outgroup), humans are now beginning to understand the downside, and in fact often immoral side, of empathy. Empathy too often results in local empathy that is the equivalent of being on teams, which results in team-like dynamics. The reality is that often when you empathize with one person or one side of an argument, you close yourself off to the other side or the other person. I am not talking about giving 2 sides of an argument equal billing. For example, if one person is being racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive, the logical course of action is not to give both sides equal empathy or equal consideration. That is not what this book is about.

    This book is about how to follow multiple lines of logic and not let knee-jerk local empathetic reactions to your favorite people or favorite causes blind you to the realities of decision-making. There are better ways, if you follow the logic all the way out *and* use your emotions, to come up with the best outcomes -- no matter if they are for your personal life, for the wellbeing of whole societies, or affect things on a global scale.

    Empathy can often lead to dynamics that involve impulsivity, manipulation, logical inconsistencies, and suboptimal outcomes. This is one of the most exciting books in the social sciences to come in a long time. A+

    ** Note: Bloom also clarified what he has come to understand since writing Just Babies. As new evidence filtered in, he saw that he was mistaken about some things and updated his thinking and shared that with his reader. I love any author who updates based on new evidence and is willing to own up to it. (Are you taking notes Dawkins?)

  • Ceil
    Dec 17, 2016

    Really wanted to like this book, having long suspected that "I feel your pain" is part of an anti-logic, anti-rational trend that glorifies individual feelings above all. Aside from setting up some useful distinctions (empathy v compassion, etc.), the author muses at length on examples of linguistic legerdemain around the concept. Nothing particularly useful here.

  • Moshe Hoffman
    Dec 15, 2016

    "Against Empathy" does a nice job summarizing all the limitations of empathy, and our altruistic drives more generally, such as being nicer to our kin and neighbors, and being especially prone to newsworthy suffering and insensitive to numbers, scale, and efficacy. Bloom rightly pointing out that our logical arguments and conscious deliberation often lead us toward more utilitarian considerations that are a better way to do good. In the process he reviews a ton of interesting experiments and ane

    "Against Empathy" does a nice job summarizing all the limitations of empathy, and our altruistic drives more generally, such as being nicer to our kin and neighbors, and being especially prone to newsworthy suffering and insensitive to numbers, scale, and efficacy. Bloom rightly pointing out that our logical arguments and conscious deliberation often lead us toward more utilitarian considerations that are a better way to do good. In the process he reviews a ton of interesting experiments and anecdotes in the process, in a thoroughly readable book.

    However, Bloom makes the same mistake many who have studied morality are prone to make: he assumes that the reason logic often leads us toward utilitarianism is because utilitarianism is actually dictated by logic. Smart people just realize that every life counts equally, whether far or close, kin or stranger, and saving one life is exactly one tenth as good as saving ten lives.

    This argument seems right, and is commonly given, but it's wrong, and consequently misleading.

    It is not reason that dictates that all lives count equally. That is a value we have. Not something we are born having. Not something that is universal or biologically evolved. Not something that is inherently true about the universe. But something that is valued in our culture. Something that we look good saying. Something we get in trouble for by espousing. Given that this is something we are socialized, and incentivized, to say, we of course come to believe it. Believe in it whole heartedly. Believe it is self evidently true despite no evidence in support (or in fact any ability to provide such evidence given that it is not even really a truth functional statement). Which makes us all the more trustworthy to pursue and enforce this value.

    And of course, if we espouse this value, and what others to think we espouse it and treat it as sacred, we have all the incentive in the world to ensure that our behavior is consistent with this value ESPECIALLY when such inconsistency is made clear to our conscious minds, is shoved in our face. As Peter Singer's drowning child example does. As Paul bloom's book nicely does. And all the evidence on how narrowly focused our altruism tends to be. Hence, when we think about morality, when we reason through moral dilemmas, when we are faced with such inconsistencies, we tend to become more utilitarian. But this doesn't imply that utilitarianism is dictated by reason, or that we are utilitarian because we are smart. It implies we are utilitarian because we want people (and hence ourselves) to think of us as caring about others welfare, and caring about notions of equality, and don't want to look inconsistent when our hypocrisy is called out or made blatant. That's different.

    The difference isn't just semantic. Believing that utilitarianism comes from reason or intelligence is quite misleading, leading to many non-sequitors, and preventing us from noting some valuable insights about how human morality works.

    In particular, if reason leads to utilitarianism (in in the absence of the social/cultural incentive to espouse values of caring and equality) then Bloom ought to have a rather hard time explaining the Nazis, and slave holders, not to mention Immanuel Kant. All of whom has quite thoroughly reasoned arguments, quite a lot of iq, and immense conscious deliberation, that lead them to conclude the exact opposite: that slavery was good, or Jews and Gypsy's and Slavs are not equal, or that omissions count quite a bit differently than commissions. It is rather hard to point to a place in Nazi arguments, or the statements of slave holders, or Kant, where reason is any more or less flimsy than Peter Singer. The difference doesn't lie there. It lies in the values they started with. Their axioms. Slaveholders didn't mind stating that they don't believe all humans are equal. Nor did the Nazis. They put extra weight (all?) on a particular race. Is this wrong? I don't see how this is any more logically wrong than our notion that all are equal. It is certainly abhorrent (to me, to us). Kant simply never accepted the axiom that consequences are all that. Where is the logical fallacy there? The problem isn't in reason, it's in the values.

    Likewise, if reason (alone) is what drives us to utilitarianism, we are left with quite a few paradoxes. Is it reasonable to ignore unborn people? To count unborn people? Does reason lead us to maximize average utility or total utility? What about utility monsters (those who get a ton of pleasure for every dollar you give them)? What about those who enjoy making others suffer? Should I go to jail for the $1,000 I wasted on a suit, causing a death in the developing world by omission? These sound like paradoxes because they pit various intuitions against each other. Various values we espouse and want to signal we have. Thereby forcing us to admit inconsistency with at least one (or come up with a convoluted argument that twists and turns reason in ways it isn't meant to be bent). Instead of just admitting, that there is nothing in logic that answers these questions. We just have various values and intuitions that evolved (or are learned, or socially reinforced) for various reasons. Each of which we have an incentive to show and an incentive to show others we value as sacred and unbending. It just turns out that it's not logically possible to have all these values in an unbending way at once. But that doesn't stop us from wanting to argue that we can. Hence paradoxes. But such moral philosophizing isn't "right" or "true" it's just what we are left with when we pretend it's reason that drives these values, and not admitting what it is: values we want others to think we hold as sacred.

    As a consequence, Bloom is left without wondering why empathy has all these quirks, instead of at once grasping all the perfect evidence that empathy and altruism, when not directly toward kin, is clearly designed, subconsciously at least, toward reputation all gains. And at the same time, Bloom is left missing the interesting question of why we came to espouse the value of equality, how moral reasoning often lead many toward other conclusions, what game people are playing when they make moral arguments, and how to optimally persuade someone to in fact be utilitarian. All insights and questions that would have been close at hand had he kept his objective psychology hat on, or his evolutionary perspective tuned.

    But unfortunately, he did what many do and accepted the moral arguments we tell and the intuitions we hold deer as self evident truths and not psychological features to be understood and explained.

    And as a consequence, Bloom is left missing he key prescriptions needed to instill utilitarianism: not increase intelligence, but incentivize values of caring and equality, and make explicit and public any inconsistencies with these values.

  • Joachim Stoop
    Feb 05, 2017

    This was not a very clear, graspable, usable book.

    There are lots of valid points here and he uses a flood of empirical data.

    But while he says he hates endless discussions about connotations, I found the explanation and meaning of the title all about linguistic nuance. I actually find the title a bit of a sales pitch.

    'Against empathy'. Yes, but fom page one he defends himself against possible misunderstandings. He based this entire book on possible critique against his title, instead of just maki

    This was not a very clear, graspable, usable book.

    There are lots of valid points here and he uses a flood of empirical data.

    But while he says he hates endless discussions about connotations, I found the explanation and meaning of the title all about linguistic nuance. I actually find the title a bit of a sales pitch.

    'Against empathy'. Yes, but fom page one he defends himself against possible misunderstandings. He based this entire book on possible critique against his title, instead of just making his case.

    Here are some of his most remarkable quotes:

    "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. And even here I don’t deny that empathy can sometimes have good results."

    This is 6 pages from the end:

    "I’ve been playing defense up to now. I’ve been arguing that evidence and theory from neuroscience, social psychology, and cognitive psychology don’t prove our everyday irrationality. But I haven’t yet made a positive case for our everyday rationality, for the role of reasoning and intelligence in our lives. I’ll do this now."

    "This distinction between empathy and compassion is critical for the argument I’ve been making throughout this book. And it is supported by neuroscience research."

    "The concern about empathy is not that its consequences are always bad, then. It’s that its negatives outweigh its positives—and that there are better alternatives."

  • Phil Aud
    Jan 26, 2017

    I thoroughly enjoyed Paul Bloom's book Against Empathy. Bloom set out to make his controversial claim that empathy leads to more harm than good. He’s against it. No really, he is. His words: “I am against empathy, and one of the goals of this book is to persuade you to be against empathy too” (p. 3). I don’t fully agree with his conclusion, but I do agree with a great deal of his argument. I’ve been doing some minor research on the topic of empathy which is what drove me to this book. It is en v

    I thoroughly enjoyed Paul Bloom's book Against Empathy. Bloom set out to make his controversial claim that empathy leads to more harm than good. He’s against it. No really, he is. His words: “I am against empathy, and one of the goals of this book is to persuade you to be against empathy too” (p. 3). I don’t fully agree with his conclusion, but I do agree with a great deal of his argument. I’ve been doing some minor research on the topic of empathy which is what drove me to this book. It is en vogue these days to believe that empathy is key to all morality. Religious and philosophical ethics are commonly out the window; empathy is here to save the day. But is it? Is that claim truly justifiable?

    First of all it’s important to note that Bloom is not a cold hearted anti-moralist monster. While he states clearly that he is against empathy, it’s important to note what he is for: “rational compassion.” It’s also important to understand his definition of empathy. He writes “the notion of empathy that I’m most interested in is the act of feeling what you believe other people feel–experiencing what they experience. This is how most psychologists and philosophers use the terms” (pp. 3-4).

    I don’t want to write about his findings here but simply wish to note that he writes convincingly about the necessary narrow scope of empathy, it’s moral dilemmas, and biases. He also explores the frequent weaknesses of the test cases that apparently “prove” that empathy is our great moral compass. All of that to simply say, he makes a great case and writes a great book. I am going to write a few issues I take with the book, but mostly I thought it was great. My lopsided review is an attempt to leave the content for you and avoid spoilers.

    Ultimately I’m persuaded but not fully convinced by Bloom’s argument. I think his categories are a tad too narrow and don’t allow for the overlap which is the integrated human person. I’m sure he would disagree, but perhaps empathy, rationality, and compassion overlap more than the author allows for. I noticed this early in the book when he wrote that “Many of our moral heroes, real and fictional, are not rational maximizers or ethical eggheads; they are people of heart. From Huckleberry Fin to Pip to Jack Bauer, from Jesus to Gandi to Martin Luther King Jr., they are individuals of great feeling” (p. 6) Really? Gandi, MLK, and Jesus were very rational in their ethics. King’s decision not to return violence for violence is about a lot of things, feeling is not one of them. This is a rationally planned decision to override what feeling would tell you in the moment. These men were all men of “heart,” but they were deeply rational. They were integrated. Jesus is perhaps the most rational ethical figure in history (both King and Gandi followed his ethic). Jesus’ ethic cannot be reduced to his golden rule as the author seemed to hint at. (Important to note that this ethic is shared by all major religions.) Neither can it be ignored. Integration seems key. At one point Bloom writes “if a child is starving, it doesn’t really matter whether the food is delivered by a smiling aid worker who hands it over and then gives the kid a hug, or dropped from the sky by a buzzing drone. The niceties of personal contact are far less important than actually saving lives” (p. 106). Well, yes; mainly true. But again, integration is key. Human touch cannot be measured the same way calories can be counted, and while the immediate need is most certainly food that needn’t diminish the long term – though often immeasurable – impact of human touch. Alas, I’m being a bit “nitpicky.” But one more thing.

    Quoting James Rachels, “morality is, at the very least, the effort to guide one’s conduct by reason–that is, to do what there are the best reasons for doing–while giving equal weight to the interests of each individual affected by one’s decision” (p. 52) Here the question is which morality? What is the goal (telos) of morality? I certainly have a different telos than Bloom. This became really clear to me in the fifth chapter on “violence and cruelty.” Bloom writes, “unless we are transformed into angels, violence and the threat of violence are needed to rein in our worst instincts” (p. 179). It strikes me, therefore, that rational compassion is massively important, but the question remains: rational compassion towards what? Who’s version of morality? Who is right on their view of the role of violence, me or Bloom? Who decides. This is an important underlying moral question and I was unclear where he stood.

    While I may disagree with some of Bloom’s assessments, I believe empathy has been significantly overplayed. Morality is important for every culture to think through and Bloom confronts what many have taken granted in ours. Despite my disagreement on some points, I am grateful for this work and hope it is widely read.

    I frequently blog and review here:

  • K_rho
    Feb 24, 2017

    This book does a honest job of giving a clear defition of empathy and how it is different from kindness, care, emotional support, and morality. However, the author is constantly selling himself, his book and the next chapters, making the reading tiresome. It is clear that he wrote his book with a white straight american audience, talking about homophobia and racism with a lot of casuality and supposing that everyone in the world is familiar with news that didn't cross the US border. Finally, for

    This book does a honest job of giving a clear defition of empathy and how it is different from kindness, care, emotional support, and morality. However, the author is constantly selling himself, his book and the next chapters, making the reading tiresome. It is clear that he wrote his book with a white straight american audience, talking about homophobia and racism with a lot of casuality and supposing that everyone in the world is familiar with news that didn't cross the US border. Finally, for a book written by a scholar and proof-read by PhD students, its lack of intellectual rigor in the real life exemples chosen is disturbing.

  • Samuel
    Jan 23, 2017

    Full of interesting content and discussion but the only problem was that his arguments, though grounded in sound reason and fact fell short in impact. I was left at the end of each chapter rather dissapointed that his arguments didn't have enough grit and bravado to both feel wholesome in its explaintory power and have that badass feel of being a contrarian.

  • Jennifer
    Jan 23, 2017

    I saw the title of this book and I

    to read it. I mean, who could be opposed to empathy? Does he want us to stop being nice to each other?

    The subtitle of the book offers a clue: Bloom would prefer us to be compassionate in more rational ways. When we 'put ourselves in others' shoes,' which is what many mean by the term empathy, it can lead to some irrational, even horrifying results. Whether it's making feel-good donations rather than researching to see where our charitable contributions woul

    I saw the title of this book and I

    to read it. I mean, who could be opposed to empathy? Does he want us to stop being nice to each other?

    The subtitle of the book offers a clue: Bloom would prefer us to be compassionate in more rational ways. When we 'put ourselves in others' shoes,' which is what many mean by the term empathy, it can lead to some irrational, even horrifying results. Whether it's making feel-good donations rather than researching to see where our charitable contributions would do the most good, or torturing enemies in the hopes of helping the people we like, that particular type of empathy can be too insular.

    So in the end, Bloom doesn't want us to stop being kind, but rather to examine our motives and the results more deeply.

  • Ryan
    Jan 25, 2017

    I once gave a presentation entitled something like "Generating Empathetic Responses Through Cognitive Role Taking in Writing." I asked my audience, all teachers like me, how many of us assumed developing empathy in others was a good thing. All hands rose.

    I agreed with my audience that empathy is pretty much a great thing.

    I still remember those times when I powerfully felt the wrongness of something by immersing myself in a situation through writing. Somehow, merely thinking abstractly and conclu

    I once gave a presentation entitled something like "Generating Empathetic Responses Through Cognitive Role Taking in Writing." I asked my audience, all teachers like me, how many of us assumed developing empathy in others was a good thing. All hands rose.

    I agreed with my audience that empathy is pretty much a great thing.

    I still remember those times when I powerfully felt the wrongness of something by immersing myself in a situation through writing. Somehow, merely thinking abstractly and concluding that something was wrong did not carry as much power as feeling that something was wrong. At the time, my primary concerns about empathy were that 1) we probably overrate its efficacy in promoting action and 2) there's a danger that we overwrite the feelings of others. But, on the whole, it's pretty useful.

    Here, Bloom argues that we should hesitate to praise emotional empathy or to assign moral weight to conclusions drawn from it. Although he gives credit to the power and influence of intuition, he's largely a defender of rationality. I was particularly interested in Bloom's ability to reference past scholars, such as Adam Smith, contemporary scholars, such as Jonathan Haidt or Steven Pinker, and to finally contextualize his conclusions within everyday experiences.

    The book is easy to read and written transparently with clear distinctions and acknowledgements. In other words, it's less polemical than the title suggests. My favorite section documented a psychologist's interactions with a Buddhist monk who distinguished empathetic meditation from compassionate meditation.

    All in all,

    is easy to recommend. (The other text on this subject that I tend to recommend is Keen's

    .) I do still recommend attempting to write from within the shoes of others, perhaps now more than ever actually, but I also recommend researching empathy's limitations before recommending it as a go-to or complete solution.

  • John Kaufmann
    Feb 21, 2017

    Solid. Well-written and interesting. 3.5 stars. The title overhypes the essence of the book a little - I almost decided

    to read the book because it sounded too extreme, almost wacko. But I try to expose myself to new ideas and ideas I don't think I would agree with, especially if are from a credible source - and in this case I had read and liked Bloom's excellent

    .

    As it turns out, the author is not totally against empathy - that is an extreme positio

    Solid. Well-written and interesting. 3.5 stars. The title overhypes the essence of the book a little - I almost decided

    to read the book because it sounded too extreme, almost wacko. But I try to expose myself to new ideas and ideas I don't think I would agree with, especially if are from a credible source - and in this case I had read and liked Bloom's excellent

    .

    As it turns out, the author is not totally against empathy - that is an extreme position which Bloom does not take. Nonetheless, he does shows that empathy is not all positive; empathy, Bloom shows, does have downsides. In particular, Bloom argues that empathy, in the narrow sense of "I feel your pain," can lead to cruelty and other negative outcomes just as easily as it can to positive outcomes. He argues further that policy decisions should not be guided by empathy but by rational deliberation - which may (and probably should) include compassion, which is different than empathy. Getting to that conclusion was half the fun - whether or not you agree with all of it.