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.

Review: Why Buddhism Is True

Why Buddhism Is True cover

Title: Why Buddhism Is True
Author: Robert Wright
Printed Pages: 337
Publish Year: 2017 (Simon & Schuster)
Recommended For: Meditation skeptics, those that find psychology and neurology fascinating, and anyone that wants proof that Buddhism-cultivated mindfulness meditation actually works.

First Lines: “At the risk of overdramatizing the human condition: Have you ever seen the movie The Matrix?”

Review

Much of my recent non-fiction reading has been focused on philosophy, particularly about mindfulness meditation and Buddhism. So naturally, a book with the curious title Why Buddhism Is True was going to pique my interest. Coupling that with the fact that the book was written by prize-winning author Robert Wright and came with a stunning list of rave reviews, this book became required reading.

I breezed through the pages, constantly highlighting passage after passage. Wright’s writing flows with conversational tone, and is sprinkled with his sardonic humor. Drawing from centuries worth of cognitive research, he sews together the science and philosophy of meditative practice. He highlights how our brains are built to deceive us and how now, more than ever, many of the things our brains evolved to do for us are no longer as useful as they might have once been, and, in some cases, do more harm than good. We evolved to survive in this world, not to see it as it actually is.

The thing surprised me the most about this book was how veiled the Buddhism aspect seemed to be. Sure, quotes from various Buddhist canon was used to introduce the topics and articles, but if you’re looking for a book that will convince you to become a Buddhist, this isn’t it. The book’s subtitle–The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment–offers a much greater clue of what the book is actually about. What many readers might not realize is how much of Buddhism is linked to mindfulness meditation, how the practice is essentially the essence of the religion. Mindfulness meditation is growing in popularity, especially from a secular standpoint. Many of today’s meditators would not consider their practice to be religious, but this book might make the reader realize that Buddhism can be stripped-down to certain truths which Wright aims to prove.

What this book also doesn’t do is teach you how to be a meditator. It provides you with plenty of evidence as to why you should start your own practice, but you’ll need to go elsewhere for actual instruction.

As someone that meditates regularly, I didn’t need this book to kickstart my practice; however, it did motivate me to become a little more enthused about what I was doing. It offers new insights into how our minds work–and more importantly, how they don’t. If nothing else, you should walk away from this book with an updated attitude and new perspective towards both your sense of self and others.

Selected Lines:

Our brains are designed to, among other things, delude us.


Natural selection doesn’t “want” us to be happy, after all; it just “wants” us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.


Buddhism offers an explicit diagnosis of the problem and a cure. And the cure, when it works, brings not just happiness but clarity of vision: the actual truth about things, or at least something way, way closer to that than our everyday view of them.


Imagine if our negative feelings, or at least lots of them, turned out to be illusions, and we could dispel them by just contemplating them from a particular vantage point.


If you accept the idea that many of our most troublesome feelings are in one sense or another illusions, then meditation can be seen as, among other things, a process of dispelling illusions.


My Rating: 4/5 – For helping me realize that my consciousness is really only interested in marketing my thoughts and actions without a care about how much deception is involved in the process.