Lost in the shuffle of, well, everything that happened in 2016 was Paul Bloom’s contrarian book, “Against Empathy.” Bloom is a psychologist at Yale University, and lays out the case that empathy is counterproductive to moral public policy.
Bloom defines empathy as “Empathy is the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.” And his central claim in this is that empathy creates two things: a “spotlight effect” and “innumeracy.”
The spotlight effect refers to a sort of tunnel vision that empathy forces us to take. As an example: focusing on the suffering of a single child rather than faceless millions suffering elsewhere. Of course, this plays to the alleged Stalin quote “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
But this general concept has also been shown repeatedly in studies that people or more generous when given a single human story to connect to, rather than broad statements about the suffering of thousands. It’s how our brains are hard-wired and connect with stories before statistics, and why the ads we see to encourage donation inevitably focus on a single person.
One can even empathize with a dragon by watching Game of Thrones or staring at stone sculptures for long enough.
As far as innumeracy, Bloom points out that empathy shuts down our ability to make and trust calculations and rational choices. Put another way, it gives the emotional parts of our brain a leg up and lets them justify actions that the numbers wouldn’t.
The last thing to note is that Bloom points out that empathy is often used for nefarious purposes. War is often sold to a population on the basis of empathy for victims – e.g. the war in Iraq was done both for the victims of 9-11 as well as people suffering in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Without litigating the case for the war, it’s a good example to see how empathy’s reach stretches far beyond getting people to donate to charity.
Instead of empathy, Bloom argues for “rational compassion,” which differs by way of encouraging understanding and caring rather than feeling as a way both to protect us from manipulations of empathy and to be more effective in the altruism we do undertake.
Empathy is an interesting thing to be “against,” as it is so innately human. Obviously neither Bloom nor myself would argue against it in the personal sphere. But the case that it sways us toward bad policy is compelling, especially when you consider that many policies that are designed to help end up being a net negative due to unintended consequences.