Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Case Against Empathy - an email discussion with Paul Bloom

This week, I read Paul Bloom's article, "The Baby in the Well" from 5/20/2013's issue of the New Yorker, subtitled, "The Case Against Empathy". I was very upset after reading it, so I thought it would be a good idea to try to talk to him, ask him where he was coming from and try to understand the article. To be empathetic instead of angry, similar to what I had done with my facebook friend

I was upset because the article seemed to be trying to encourage people not to use empathy. The article called empathy "narrow-minded", and a poor choice to use when making decisions. I confronted him about each of these ideas. 

What I learned from our conversation was that again, if I can put aside my feelings and actually listen to what people have to say, I find that we are really not so far apart as I thought we were. 

I also think that our discussion brings to me an idea - that there is a difference between conscious empathy and unconscious empathy. I'm going to be thinking about this and maybe I'll have a future post about it too. 

For your amusement, here's a few excerpts of our discussion. Have you pushed yourself to talk to someone who disagrees with you, and see if you can come to agreement? Where did it lead?

Thanks for reading,


[Janet] wrote:
Hello Mr. Bloom,
I read your article, "The Baby in the Well", and I have some questions for you. I'm hoping you will take a few moments to answer them, as I'm not entirely clear on your message. 
...if I am interpreting your article correctly, you may be encouraging people to dismiss empathy as a force for change....

...you call empathy 'narrow-minded', and you then make the case that being narrow-minded is a bad thing. ... I agree that it's limiting to focus empathy on one, identifiable person rather than a group. However, saying this is bad seems to ignore the possibility that a person could choose to give nothing at all....I believe that a person, like me, will only begin to give if we are moved to do so. I'm generous when I think about it but selfish by nature - I focus my resources on my life, my family, my money and my friends. If I'm going to part with my hard earned money and the time I have so little of, I must have empathy first.   

...Empathy empowers people to take action...

...I believe that people are easily overwhelmed by all of the horrible ways that beings suffer in our world. There's this fantastic line in one of my favorite movies, Ever After. Have you seen it? The king's son says, "I used to think that if I cared about anything I would have to care about everything." It was only after the character found a cause to support that he was able to move forward, and actually help people. I think I'm a little bit like that too. I think 'there's no way I can help, I'm just one person.' I stop feeling overwhelmed, however, if I focus on one small thing. By focusing my attention I'm able to find a way to use my mind to help.

[Paul Bloom] wrote:

....I'm not entirely against empathy -- as I mention at the end of the article, I think it's essential for intimate relationships....

...I agree that empathy has driven people to do wonderful things. But, as I discuss in my article, it has also motivated terrible things, such as savage punishments that are driven by empathy for victims. See also here, 2nd paragraph:

...My argument is that empathy is often inadequate for policy decisions. You simply can't emphasize with a billion people; or with people who don't yet exist; empathy is insensitive to number and it's statistically stupid. ... I'm calling for people to use other moral faculties instead, such as self-control, perspective taking, rational deliberation, notions of fairness, justice, and impartiality, and conceptions of human rights. 
[Janet] wrote:

I understand your point now, I think. You agree that empathy is good on a one-person-to-one-person level. However, when we use empathy to push for mass policy change we make poor choices. I agree with this, in general, as it does seem impossible to me that I could empathize with people-not-yet-born or entire civilizations of people. 

I also agree that people do punish more harshly when they empathize with the victim, or punish less harshly when they empathize with the criminal.  However, this doesn't make me think that we should have less empathy. It makes me think we need more. If instead of empathizing for one side or another I empathize with both sides, then I have a chance to use my brain to make the best decision. It's the perspective-taking that you are talking about. I'm intentionally choosing to find a way to empathize not only with Tsarnaev but also with the eight year old boy victim. I think it's possible for people to develop their empathy so they see both sides of a situation. What do you think?

[Paul Bloom] wrote: 
I think we're mostly in agreement here. I think empathy can be very useful for certain more "local" problems, as in the story of you and tailgaters; it's often the moral thing to try, as you nicely put it, "being two people at once". 


susan thom said...

i have dealt with people with empathy my whole life, but i am beginning to think that may not always be the best way to deal with a person or a situation.
when a person is difficult to deal with, and i use understanding, compassion, sympathy, pity, insight, and feeling, i am allowing myself to be wide open to be hurt by somene who might not think in the same way.
if my conscience is empathetic, but someone else's is not, i will be the one to carry the burden of hurt feelings and possible depression. i have always given everyone the benefit of the doubt- a demonstrative father, a misguided brother, family, friends, children, and acquaintances. at 56, i am beginning to see that i may be able to shield myself from pain if i simply deal with others the way they deal with me. however, if i find i trust someone and can relate to them in a way they can relate to me, empathy abounds.

Janet said...

Thanks Sue! I agree that having empathy for other people can leave us open to pain.

It's wonderful when we can give empathy to others and they can give it back.


edwin rutsch said...

here's more about this with more replies etc. Edwin

Janet said...

Thanks Edwin! For those who haven't yet clicked on the above link, it's a link to another empathy group that has collected several articles and discussion responses to Paul's article. Well worth checking out.


dev said...

so I had to read this for a college English class and answer a few questions. But this article makes no sense to me at all. I just need a little help to understand it a little better.

Janet said...

Hi Dev,

I'm not sure if I can help you or not, what's your question? Or perhaps you should pose your question to Mr. Bloom directly?