Against Empathy

My grandfather died last week.  A couple days before that my aunt had a heart scare.  And on Friday morning my wife and I went to the sentencing of the man who sexually assaulted her.  None of these things made me cry.  Instead, I cry when I see characters do things that show great compassion for others in shows and books.  What is wrong with me?  Well, lots of things.  But I found this book to be very comforting when asking myself about my feelings concerning the way I react to the pain of those I love.  

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom
is a fascinating book.  I feel the need to apologize for the clickbait title, but the substance of the book actually mostly warrants it.   

The fundamental move Bloom is making is the disentanglement of empathy into two distinct concepts, and to remove both of those from the concept of compassion.  So, empathy can be cognitive.  That’s just the ability to ascertain another’s feelings.  And another form is affective or emotional empathy, which is the experience of feeling some version of what you think another is feeling.  It seems that those on the sociopathy spectrum can be quite adept at cognitive empathy.  They need to be in order to mirror and manipulate people.  And so the common assumption is that what a sociopath (and other selfish and bad people) lack is emotional empathy.  Bloom points to research that shows that’s not necessarily the case.  Instead, he argues that what evil people lack is compassion.  And he claims that compassion does not require emotional empathy.  In fact, he argues that emotional empathy leads to bad ends as often -or more- then it leads to good ends.

This is tricky, and he spends the first couple chapters hashing this out because common parlance and colloquial usage often assumes that empathy is at the root of all morality.  So if you argue against empathy you must be arguing FOR selfishness, cruelty and all the other stuff that it is assumed empathy saves us from.  But that’s not the case.  Bloom wants people to be kind, loving and compassionate, and that leads him to explore the role that empathy plays in the application of our moral instincts.  

I’m not going to try to defend his thesis here.  If the premise sounds interesting or outrageous to you, that’s what reading the book is for.  But here’s some stuff he says that stood out to me:

“Empathy is limited... in that it focuses on specific individuals.  Its spotlight nature renders it innumerate and myopic: It doesn’t resonate properly to the effects of our actions on groups of people, and it is insensitive to statistical data and estimated costs and benefits.”

“We are not capable of feeling a million times worse about the suffering of a million than about the suffering of one”  ← This is why it’s susceptable to moral illusions such as this one:

“Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.” italics mine
And here’s a fascinating experience from a 9/11 responder:

“I have always felt that I am very empathetic, and that that has been both a blessing and a curse in my work.  I have struggled with burn-out for years… I have felt that I was being less than helpful to my patients if I shutdown my empathetic response to their pain.  This really got me into trouble when I was part of a disaster medical relief team sent to the World Trade Center site.  We were there at the beginning of November, so there were no living victims of the attacks to care for, only the crews that were digging up bodies… I not only opened myself up to trying to be there and feel the pain with the workers there, but I also tried to really take in my surroundings and feel the horror and the loss around me.  I felt it was somehow immoral not to.  One day I was way too successful at being empathetic in that way, and it was more than I could take.  My mind just couldn’t handle it.  It was like trying to drink from a firehouse, and I was drowning.”

End the end, I think the message of the book was that people with large amounts of emotional empathy are not bad, or that empathy leads to bad actions.  Only that it CAN, if not moderated by rational compassion.  It’s a powerful emotional tool, much like anger, that can be harnessed for good, but just as easily diverted to evil.

The practical application for me is an appreciation for the disposition that I have.  I WANT to help people.  Help society.  Fight for justice.  Learn to love more.  I want to live a life where I am a blessing to everyone I can be.  But I just don’t get sad when someone next to me is sad.  Instead, I want to take action, to figure out why the sadness occurs and create an action plan for minimizing it in the future. (which can be problematic for people on THIS end of the spectrum: )

One example of being action-oriented in action is my marriage.  My wife is in chronic pain.  Migraines every day, fibromyalgia, ankylosing spondylitis, and certainly at least one other major degenerative disease that we have yet to figure out.  The past decade has been one of increasing pain, and decreasing mobility, energy and options.  If I empathetically experienced her pain I would be an absolute wreck of a human.  And worse, I would not be able to DO the actions she requires to have the best life she can, given her circumstances.  Instead of feeling her pain I simply do what I can to mitigate or minimize her pain.  I do daily physical therapy for her.  I try to do any chores that require heavy physical movement.  I make no demands of her physical body.  She needed a husband who was wired like me.  Someone who does not have emotional empathy, but has compassion for her.  Someone who can be cheerful and happy when she’s feeling down.  Someone who feels RIGHT and GOOD about sacrificing certain things for her because it’s the right thing to do, and not get resentful about it.  I think if I felt more emotional empathy I could not be that husband.   

So my biggest takeaway from this book is a greater appreciation for the varied dispositions we all have that bring different and valuable insights into our lives if we are willing to listen patiently.  

What the hell?!  Why was this so short?  Did I suddenly get better at writing?!


Frank Foreman said…
It's an interesting take on empathy. It is difficult for me to parse out the terms "sympathy", "empathy" and "compassion". They overlap in usage. But the concept that empathy in not always good is valid. It is feeling and all feelings are good or bad depending on what actions they lead to.
Blogger said…
There's a chance you're qualified to get a $1,000 Amazon Gift Card.
thanks for sharing

Popular posts from this blog

The Particular as the Enemy of the Good

Science and Conspiracy

Altered Carbon and the Problem of Sci-fi density