Book Reviews - Winter 2017

Feeling No Pain


A philosopher argues we should not be misled by our hearts

According to Bloom, empathy makes us care too much about those who are like us, and too little about those who aren’t. (iStock)

By Nathalie Lagerfeld

December 5, 2016


Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom; Ecco, 304 pp., $26.99

Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom has lately become known for his controversial stance against empathy. In numerous essays, he has written that empathy is a bad moral guide because it prioritizes the sufferings of specific individuals over those of nameless multitudes. It’s easy to empathize with a baby who’s fallen down a well, for example, but hard to feel the pain of the billions of people whose lives will be ruined by climate change.

Empathy makes us care too much about those who are like us, and too little about those who aren’t, Bloom argues. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, well-wishers deluged the survivors with millions of dollars worth of gifts—even though the death toll from school shootings equals about one-tenth of one percent of all American homicides, which typically occur in communities much more gravely in need of aid than affluent Newtown, Connecticut. By heightening our experience of individual victims’ suffering, empathy also encourages retaliatory aggression and violence—especially if those to be retaliated against are an innumerable many, as in war. In intimate relationships, empathy also causes burnout and resentment when one person is expected to feel too much of another’s pain.

In Against Empathy, Bloom expands his argument into a book of compelling case studies and perceptive observations that ultimately fail to make his case. Part of the problem stems from the slipperiness of the terms themselves. Bloom makes a strong distinction between empathy—feeling another person’s pain—and both cognitive empathy (understanding others’ pain) and compassion (caring about others), which entails taking that pain seriously without feeling it yourself. Most people mean the latter, and not the former, when they talk about empathy, but this doesn’t seem to faze Bloom—which would be fine, except that in Against Empathy, he himself is not all that good at observing the distinction.

There’s no way to be sure, for instance, that the people who sent gifts to Newtown did so because they were feeling the community’s pain. They might have rationally believed that their contributions would help the town heal. Or they might have been motivated by some emotion unrelated to empathy, like trying to look good to their neighbors by giving to charity. They might also reasonably believe that school shootings are more problematic than other homicides, despite being numerically few.

Bloom considers none of these options. Instead, he assumes that Newtown donations resulted from feelings of empathy simply because he finds them irrational and overblown. (Conversely, any action Bloom finds reasonable he labels as “compassionate.”) This problem continues throughout the book, with Bloom often glossing over fine distinctions that in reality are crucial to his argument—odd in a book that’s supposedly a defense of logical argumentation.

But Against Empathy does contain some convincing evidence that empathy, in Bloom’s strict definition, can mislead us. He cites an experiment, for example, in which participants were made to read about a 10-year-old child with a painful terminal illness. Some were instructed to “imagine how the child feels”—the high-empathy condition—while others were told to “take an objective perspective to what is described.” Three-quarters of the subjects in the high-empathy condition opted to bump the child up in line for treatment, even though that meant that other, likely sicker patients would have to wait longer for care. Only one-third of the subjects in the low-empathy condition did so.

But proving that empathy is occasionally or even often misleading is not the same as proving, as Bloom sets out to do, that “on balance, empathy is a negative in human affairs.” For one, Bloom’s case for “rational compassion” assumes that it is not necessary to put yourself in other people’s shoes in order to understand their needs. All well and good when you’re comforting your own child who has been scared during a thunderstorm (one of Bloom’s preferred examples), but applied to people vastly different from us, such detachment seems a recipe for white-man’s-burden-style condescension. Responding to the criticism from a sociology professor that his ideal of rationality might be more accessible to white male Yale professors than to others, Bloom points to parallels in Eastern Buddhist thought. The monk he quotes is a white male with a PhD in molecular genetics.

Bloom is arguing against something broader than empathy: perhaps the overall role of emotion and intuition in our moral decision-making. This more general argument comes through in the final chapter of the book, where Bloom challenges the assumption—laid out in Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and popular in psychology circles today—that intuitive “System 1” thinking always trumps the more rationalist “System 2.” But Bloom undermines this train of thought in his attempts to shoehorn it into his reductive framework about empathy. The same could be said for the rest of the book.

Nathalie Lagerfeld is a writer and editor in Chicago.

Comments powered by Disqus