It takes guts to come out in opposition to empathy but that’s just what Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom does in Against Empathy. To be clear, he’s primarily concerned with emotional empathy (taking on the emotional states of other individuals as our own) as opposed to cognitive empathy (having a sense of social intelligence). For Bloom, emotional empathy is too innumerate and prone to bias and so he prefers that we have a more general concern for human flourishing rather than focusing on developing an empathic experience with any specific individual or small group of people.
Bloom offers a variety of examples through Against Empathy to build his case, among them are the shooting massacre in Newtown, CT and the heart-warming Make-A-Wish story of Batkid. Following the horrible shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, the town was so inundated with contributions and gifts that the charity actually became a burden. Additionally, some contributions to the relatively affluent Connecticut town came from people living in much poorer communities. In the case of Batkid, good-willed, empathic folks in San Francisco gave Miles Scott, a five-year-old with leukemia, the experience of being a superhero. Complete with a ride in a Batmobile and the chance to catch the Riddler, the Make-A-Wish provided an unforgettable day for one boy at a cost of at least $7500. A similar donation to any number of charities would certainly have done greater good for a much larger number of worthy recipients. For Bloom, these instances demonstrate how empathy misallocates resources and displays a biased for in-group members at the expense of those in needier out-groups.
That empathy can be recruited for both good and ill is also seen in literature. Borrowing from the analysis of Joshua Landy, Bloom notes that the good done by the likes of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Color Purple must be weighed against works such Birth of a Nation and Atlas Shrugged. All of these works attempts to recruit empathy, some for noble means other less so.
Bloom’s argument against empathy also includes insights from ongoing neuroscience research, a critique that empathy in politics overemphasizes the parochial concerns of the here and now and that what many might call “pure evil” is really a selective deployment of empathy by its perpetrators. Throughout Against Empathy, Bloom takes pains to consider the weaknesses of his positions, including the possibility that he is simply playing a word game by splitting hairs between emotional empathy, cognitive empathy and compassion.
Surely Bloom expects a strong reaction from readers. The title and the picture of a heart in a block of ice on the cover may be attempts to push things in just such a direction. If so, it only half worked on this reader but not because the analysis and arguments don’t work. Generally speaking, and once you accept the terms upon which Bloom wishes to have the argument, his analysis holds together well. However, those versed in the work of modern thinkers such as Steven Pinker, Peter Singer and Daniel Kahneman along with past greats such as Kant and Hume will feel that they’ve heard much of this before. A worthwhile read? Absolutely. Significantly different than what has come before? Probably not but it’s a fun ride nonetheless.