Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Against Empathy

Lyrics. Wonderful song and a nice story. Not from my life.

A while back, psychologist Paul Bloom had an important insight that he turned into his book Against Empathy. (Wikipedia; Vox interview; Podcast with Sean Carroll who doesn't agree.)

Bloom isn't a selfish, self-centered libertarian. Rather, he believes empathy gets in the way of actually improving the world.

In his definition, empathy is when you actually feel someone else's emotion. Although this might seem like a good thing, it limits our ethical thinking to those we know well enough to have empathy.

For example, a common definition of being a parent is having a part of your (metaphorical) heart out in the world. In other words, many, if not most parents have great empathy for their children. This is generally good* because human children need a huge amount of care and love to survive and thrive (and successfully reproduce).

However, our emotional empathy** for those we know and love can blind us to great suffering in those we don't know. (It also can lead us to actively turn against the "other" who is outside our circle of empathy.) We give all our resources to those whose emotions we feel, ignoring the vast good we could do by sharing at least some of those resources with others. For example, we donate to our kid's club instead of Give Directly or One Step for Animals.

Bloom argues, persuasively I think, that the world would be much better if we instead replaced (much of) our empathy with compassion - "I give your concern weight, I value it. I care about you, but I don’t necessarily pick up your feelings."

Compassion allows us to see past our inherent biases for those closest to us. Then we can better help more individuals with our limited resources. 

Now Bloom is not saying we should love every sentient being equally, or that we shouldn't love our family and good friends. Rather, he wants us to recognize that empathy - which, like nearly everything about us to some extent, is there to get our genes to the next generation - biases us to make choices that are very far from optimal if we want to make the world a better place.

*Furthermore, empathy can cripple us (as discussed in Day 14 Concluded: Worst the First in Losing My Religions). Taking on others' suffering can overwhelm us, given how much suffering there is. This is a key problem for animal / social justice advocates - it may be the key concern. 

Seeing an act of cruelty - photos of a Black person beaten to death, footage from a slaughterhouse - can inspire us to act. But emotional empathy can crush us, paralyze us, and thus prevent us from doing as much good as we can - or even doing any good at all. I've seen this happen hundreds of times. This is one of the things we hope to help with One Step for Activists.

How to deal with this is another blog; it is an important enough topic that I do suggest reading the article and then maybe the book. (The first half of a "No Stupid Questions" episode discusses it, too; note, I'm not the Matt involved!) But I think it is important to at least recognize the distinction between compassion and empathy, and the significant downsides of the latter.

**In this podcast, Paul Bloom and Robert Wright distinguish between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. The latter can help us understand what people are thinking without impairing us, and thus have better reactions.

1 comment:

WolfKenobi said...

An example of this: One of my very dear friends, who is one of the kindest and most compassionate people I know, very openly discusses having low reflexive/emotional empathy as part of their experience of being autistic, and how it has helped them be a reliable person in crises because they aren't frozen by mirroring someone else's pain and can be clear headed enough to actually be helpful (having the presence of mind to call for appropriate help or follow first aid procedures, for example.)
Emotional or reflexive empathy so often gets held up as some sort of gold standard of human goodness, when it's just that - a reflex that people have or don't have to varying degrees. Making the point that it biases us to those closest to us - and most similar to us, those that the reflex responds most strongly to - and can be harmful is very important and well said here. Compassion and cognitive empathy, both of which we can learn and practice and extend further intentionally rather than reflexively, are much more valuable and we definitely benefit from putting more weight on them. Well said.