Empathy’s Unintended Consequences

“When you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others,” then-senator Barack Obama told a standing-room-only crowd in 2006 at Xavier University’s commencement, “whether they are close friends or distant strangers—it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.” Empathy has become, in many precincts of 21st-century America, both the preferred tool for moral reasoning and a paramount value in its own right. But in this well-reasoned tract, Paul Bloom punctures empathy’s seeming invulnerability by outlining its serious flaws, arguing instead for the use of compassionate but rational judgment in reaching ethical decisions.

Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, begins by defining empathy, with most contemporary psychologists and philosophers, as “the act of feeling what you believe other people feel—experiencing what they experience.” He also explores the nature of empathy, including its roots in the human brain—specifically, the cingulate cortex and anterior insula. Because empathic reactions to the experiences of others trigger the same gray matter as if you yourself underwent that experience, claiming “ ’I feel your pain’ isn’t just a gooey metaphor: it can be made neurologically literal.”

Physical or not, chief among the many faults Bloom finds with empathy, each of which he analyzes in depth, are that it’s biased, shortsighted, innumerate, and corrosive of personal relationships.

Of course, Bloom is no hardhearted Scrooge. He recognizes the benefits of empathy, but likens it to “sugary soda, tempting and delicious and bad for us.” Empathy, Bloom finds, operates through the salience principle: When suffering becomes starkly apparent, empathy supercharges our ethical response. (Picture the dirty, emaciated face of a young child whom you could feed for a year, as the advertisements suggest, “for the price of a cup of coffee.”) But this bias toward those tragedies staring us in the face does us no favors; the published literature, as a whole, reveals only a negligible relationship between empathy and good behavior.

Conversely, not all those who suffer from an empathy deficit are immoral, or prone to evildoing. Indeed, research shows that while psychopaths generally lack empathy, they also “suffer from a blunting of just about all of the emotions” that inhibit antisocial behavior. Perhaps most important, empathy “causes us to overrate present costs and underrate future costs,” Bloom writes, such that we might favor saving the life of one specific child right now over the lives of many unknown children in the future. In one prominent example, the $100,000 spent temporarily transforming San Francisco into Gotham City for the benefit of the “Batkid”—a 5-year-old suffering from leukemia—could have provided antimosquito bed nets sufficient to save dozens of children from malaria.

In a thought-provoking chapter on the politics of empathy, Bloom persuasively undermines the conventional wisdom that liberals are more empathic than conservatives, showing how politicians and judges on the right evince their own form of empathy—including for victims of violent crime and terrorism, for inner-city children trapped in failing public schools, and for small businesses strangled by taxes and regulation.

So if empathy leads us astray, what, then, should guide our moral judgments? Bloom suggests, first, a blend of compassion and understanding—in other words, an appreciation of what others experience, if not an immersion therein. And while, etymologically speaking, compassion (“suffering with”) is more or less the Latin cognate of the Greek word empathy (“feeling in”), the former connotes a certain analytical distance that the latter elides. Citing sources ranging from psychoanalytic research to Buddhist philosophy, Bloom elucidates how compassion and understanding, properly applied, offer the benefits of empathy without its drawbacks.

The most important faculty we should bring to bear on moral judgment, however, is that which makes us distinctly human: cold, hard reason. “We can do better” than empathy-based decision-making, Bloom insists, by deploying our critical rational faculties in the service of (among other things) a recognition that “a stranger’s life matters as much as the life of our child.” And while reasoned judgment is often impaired, admits of numerous plausible conclusions, and requires hard work, it’s worth it. Here, Bloom usefully enlists Adam Smith, who writes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

It is not the soft power of humanity .  .  . that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. .  .  . It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct.

Reason may be stubborn and unlovely, but it’s the surest guide we have to effective ethical decision-making. Perhaps, then, we can attribute our moral failings not to a shortage of empathy but to the concept itself: It’s neither necessary nor sufficient to effect constructive change. To return where we started, for example, no one doubts President Obama felt the pain of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian children who perished in the genocide enacted on his watch. But he didn’t act and he didn’t help, although his supporters nevertheless felt like he—and they—cared about the plight of those children.

Sugary, tempting, delicious—and bad indeed.

Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in Israel.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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