Review: Against Empathy – The Case For Rational Compassion


Title: Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion
Author: Paul Bloom
Printed Pages: 266
Publish Year: 2016 (Ecco)
Recommended For: Those that value reason and rationality, readers interested in moral philosophy, and those that want to learn how to use compassion correctly.

First Lines: “For the last couple of years, when people ask me what I’ve been up to, I say that I’m writing a book. They ask for details and I tell them, “It’s about empathy.” They tend to smile and nod when I say the word, and then I add: “I’m against it.””

Review:

In this shockingly-titled book, Yale researcher Paul Bloom argues that there’s no shortage of empathy in our world, that there is, in fact, far too much of it. With a claim such as this, Bloom has a lot of explaining to do. And he does it. Empathy might be the thing that separates humans from other animals, but it’s a terrible moral guide.

Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom – Credit: Yale

Before you throw your hands up in the air, full of contempt for an idea that sounds so absurd, let me assure you that Bloom goes to good lengths to clarify his definition of empathy. Bloom isn’t against kindness or compassion, or good-will towards others. He’s not advocating for an each-person-for-themselves dystopian nightmare. There’s absolutely no selfishness in his arguments. What he’s actually advocating is a more productive society with less suffering than we experience now. To do that, he argues,  we need to use our heads, more than our hearts, when we make important decisions.

Don’t let the title deceive you, Bloom’s writing and arguments are warm and compassionate. This book is more uplifting than you might originally expect.

As Bloom argues in his book, empathy is a sort of spotlight that highlights certain spaces for illumination while leaving the surrounding areas dark. In this book, empathy itself is chosen for some necessary and past-due illumination.

Selected Lines:

“Empathy is what makes us human; it’s what makes us both subjects and objects of moral concern. Empathy betrays us only when we take it as a moral guide.”


Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now. This makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with.


[E]mpathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that prejudice does.


Empathy is particularly insensitive to consequences that apply statistically rather than to specific individuals.


But, again, it’s easy to see that this is a mistake from everyday examples. I see a child crying because she’s afraid of a barking dog. I might rush over to pick her up and calm her, and I might really care for her, but there’s no empathy there. I don’t feel her fear, not in the slightest.


My Rating: 4/5For making me really think about what empathy is and, more importantly, what it does.