“Against empathy? How could anyone be against empathy?”
That was probably my first reaction too, because I and the people around me are all focused on being good to other people, and empathy seems to offer a way to do that. It seems to offer us insight, so we know the right things to say and do. But Paul Bloom’s contention is that empathy doesn’t always lead us in the right direction: he reminds the reader that empathy is what makes us focus on one sick child whose name and face we know, even if we don’t actually know the child is even real, over tens or hundreds of other sick children. Empathy can focus us powerfully on feeling how a single other person “must” be feeling — and therein lies the problem. It’s hard, if not impossible, to empathise with everyone in a whole crowd, and our instincts aren’t always accurate in guessing how other people feel. If they were, then we’d never say exactly the wrong thing when we want to comfort someone who is sad — we’d know what to say.
What Bloom isn’t against is compassion: he speaks admiringly of the Buddhist ideal of compassion without attachment, for instance. Compassion linked with reason can indeed guide us to do good, to do the moral thing, to ensure he hurt the least number of people. But empathy — pure “I feel what you feel” emotional attachment leads us astray, and Bloom argues that point well.
To empathise is a human emotion that many of us share, and Bloom isn’t claiming it’s inherently a bad thing. That would be to misread the book entirely. Honestly, despite often thinking that empathy is a virtue and people can do more of it, I find it difficult to disagree with Bloom’s conclusions. Part of that is that he writes really clearly, which makes it easy to knee-jerk believe that he’s right, but I think I’ll still be thinking about (and agreeing with) this in a few days, weeks, months.
Time to look up Effective Altruism again, and do something with the information this time.