Why Empathy Is Bad

In a new book, a professor argues that empathy can fuel prejudice, tribalism, and violence. He says it also assisted Donald Trump's rise.

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Dec 21 2016, 5:23pm

Empathy is usually touted as a virtue, the root of kindness and charity, a way to transcend our selfishness. A Christmas Carol is largely about developing a sense of empathy; the 1984 hit "Do They Know It's Christmas" reminds us to think of starving African children while we're enjoying the holidays. But to Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, empathy is responsible for much of what's cruel, biased, and unfair in human society. He thinks the solution to making better decisions—and thus creating a better, kinder, more equal world—is to learn to override our empathy switch, and makes this case in Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, out this month from HarperCollins.

Mixing everyday anecdotes, clinical studies, historical events, and philosophical thought, Bloom demonstrates how empathy—or "empathic bias," to use his term—drives sexism, racism, and discrimination of all sorts, often triggering violence and war. In his analysis, its narrow focus rends it "innumerate, tribal, vulnerable to all sorts of biases." Too often, it acts as a corrosive, sentimental drug of an emotion ("sugary soda, tempting and delicious and bad for us") weakening our moral fiber and clouding our good judgement.

In a phone interview, I asked Bloom to talk me through his controversial idea. He defines empathy narrowly as "feeling the experiences of others, often feeling their pain" and differentiates it from kindness, compassion, and caring for others—more reliably positive qualities that work as "forces for good" and lack empathy's shadier sides. When people talk about the need for greater empathy in the world—as Barack Obama often does, as do empathy obsessed corporate trainers and TED-style thought leaders—they often it blur it together with these other concepts.

But Bloom said that empathy evangelists "miss how empathic pull can have all sorts of bad consequences." For example, he told me: "When you hear about this little girl stuck in a well, and you devote all your energies to fixing it, you're putting aside that there could be hundreds of thousands of people suffering much worse that could also use your help, but they don't trigger your empathy." And empathy can often mix with preexisting ethnic or racial biases. "Empathy is like a spotlight. It zooms in on people," said Bloom. "If I'm choosing who to help, I will be more concerned about the person who looks like me."

All identity politics—whether we're talking about gender, race, color, culture, or creed—is influenced by empathic bias. We feel the pain of those in our in-groups and tend to blame anyone who isn't as sensible to that pain for lack of feeling.

According to Bloom: "The enthusiasm for empathy is grounded in the idea that, if everybody would be more empathic, everybody would have political views just like me. [Liberals] think that, 'Oh, if only Republicans would feel more empathy, then they would agree with me about healthcare and foreign aid and gay rights.'"

But for Bloom, this kind of thinking is simply an "illusion": "Conservatives and liberals are almost never arguing about whether or not to empathize. They're just arguing about whom to empathize with." Democrats generally emphasize with their constituents—minorities, immigrants, students—while Donald Trump has made repeated (and effective) gestures of empathy toward older white people who feel displaced and threatened by change. "There are going to be empathy arguments on both sides," Bloom told me.

Heart-stirring personal stories are the bread and butter of this system of argument, he said. "If you're against Obamacare, you trot out some individual, and say, 'Look at this poor schnook! His life was ruined by Obamacare.' If you're for Obamacare, you pull out some other poor schnook and say, 'His life is going to be ruined if you take away his Obamacare!' And, for every policy—diversity, gun control, foreign aid—you go to find winners and losers."

This year's presidential contest was a masterclass in empathy arguments, with its most shameless practitioner winning the final prize. "You don't often hear Donald Trump and empathy used in the same sentence," Bloom told me, "but he was extraordinarily skilled at evoking empathy for certain people: for people who have been left out, for people who have been humiliated by the establishment, for victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. In his rallies, he would tell these moving stories of people who were murdered by immigrants, and you would feel for them. This would be used a catalyst for expelling immigrants from the country."

"If you voted for Trump, I don't want to feel what you feel, experience what you experience—but it would be useful, because we live in the same country, because we might be friends, to understand why."

Bloom recognizes that empathic arguments can trigger positive, moral actions (charitable giving, for example) but he believes that reason, directed by compassion, is a better and more reliable guide to good decisions. "We can make the conscious choice to step back," he told me, and "not be swayed by picture you're painting me or the story you're telling me, but to try to figure out the best way to act."

In that sense, he told me that the "debate on whether [Hillary] Clinton supporters should show empathy for Trump voters is poorly thought out." Instead of empathy, he said "what we need is more understanding. If you voted for Trump, I don't want to feel what you feel, experience what you experience—but it would be useful, because we live in the same country, because we might be friends, to understand why [you voted Trump]. And we don't need any sort of empathic magic for this. I could just ask you."

Bloom cited Obama as a model for how to override empathic bias. "One of the things I respect about Obama is that he so often transcended it," he told me. "He would actually make rational arguments. He has all the manifest skills and traits of a successful politician—not all of which are good—but I think he's an extraordinarily decent person. And, in some way, it's a bit of an illustration of my point, which is that you can be a decent, compassionate, kind person, and still be cool and rational."

Shahirah Majumdar is a writer living in Chicago.

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