The Case for Rational Compassion
by Paul Bloom
After finishing this book in July of 2023, I wrote,
"I was intrigued by the idea that empathy could be a bad thing. But, by the end of reading this book, Paul Bloom had made a compelling case for how, in most cases, relying on empathy to guide our actions causes more damage than good and is frequently disempowering."
My clippings below collapse a 266-page book into six pages, measured by using 12-point type in Microsoft Word."
Here are the selections I made:
I am particularly impressed by the research of Tania Singer, a cognitive neuroscientist, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk—two scholars working together to explore the distinction between empathy and compassion.
The fifth chapter is about evil, looking skeptically at the view that lack of empathy makes people worse. The final chapter steps back to defend human rationality, arguing that we really do have the capacity to use reasoned deliberation to make it through the world. We live in an age of reason.
There are situations where people’s empathy can motivate good action, and moral individuals can use empathy as a tool to motivate others to do the right thing. Empathy might play a valuable, perhaps irreplaceable, role in intimate relationships. And empathy can be a source of great pleasure. It’s not all bad. But still, I stand fast. On balance, empathy is a negative in human affairs. It’s not cholesterol. It’s sugary soda, tempting and delicious and bad for us. Now I’ll tell you why.
For just about any human capacity, you can assess the pros and cons. So let’s give empathy the same scrutiny.
Empathy is the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.
For every specific problem, lack of empathy is seen as the diagnosis and more empathy as the cure.
Further, spotlights only illuminate what they are pointed at, so empathy reflects our biases.
Empathy is limited as well in that it focuses on specific individuals. Its spotlight nature renders it innumerate and myopic: It doesn’t resonate properly to the effects of our actions on groups of people, and it is insensitive to statistical data and estimated costs and benefits.
Part of the answer is that Sandy Hook was a single event. The murders in Chicago are more of a steady background noise. We’re constituted so that novel and unusual events catch our attention and trigger our emotional responses.
But for us mortals, empathy really is a spotlight. It’s a spotlight that has a narrow focus, one that shines most brightly on those we love and gets dim for those who are strange or different or frightening.
This perverse moral mathematics is part of the reason why governments and individuals care more about a little girl stuck in a well than about events that will affect millions or billions. It is why outrage at the suffering of a few individuals can lead to actions, such as going to war, that have terrible consequences for many more.
Empathy is particularly insensitive to consequences that apply statistically rather than to specific individuals. Imagine learning that a faulty vaccine has caused Rebecca Smith, an adorable eight-year-old, to get extremely sick. If you watch her suffering and listen to her and her family, the empathy will flow, and you’ll want to act. But suppose that stopping the vaccine program will cause, say, a dozen random children to die. Here your empathy is silent—how can you empathize with a statistical abstraction? To the extent that you can appreciate that it’s better for one specific child to die than for an unknown and imprecise larger number of children to die, you are using capacities other than empathy.
If you absorb the suffering of others, then you’re less able to help them in the long run because achieving long-term goals often requires inflicting short-term pain.
If you feel bad for someone who is bored, that’s sympathy, but if you feel bored, that’s empathy.
For instance, most economists believe in the merits of free trade, and this is in large part because, unlike politicians and many citizens, they refuse to see any principled difference between the lives of people in our country and the lives of people in others. An American president who claimed that we shouldn’t fight to keep jobs in America—after all, Mexican families are just as important as families in the United States— wouldn’t be president much longer. But economists dismiss this as sheer bias that makes the world worse.
Or consider why economics is sometimes called “the dismal science.” It’s a derogatory description thought up by Thomas Carlyle in the 1800s, coined to draw a contrast with the “gay science” of music and poetry: “Not a ‘gay science,’ I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science.”
Carlyle has a specific issue in mind, a case where he wanted to ridicule economists for objecting to something that was the subject of considerable feeling and heart, something that Carlyle had defended with great emotion. What was this issue that the economists were being so negative about? Slavery. Carlyle was upset because the economists were against slavery. He argued for the...
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For better or worse, then, my attack on empathy is nonpartisan. Or to put it more positively, individuals of all political orientations—liberal, conservative, libertarian, hard right, hard left, all of us—can join hands and work together in the fight against empathy.
In a series of empirical and theoretical articles, Vicki Helgeson and Heidi Fritz explore sex differences in the propensity for what they call “unmitigated communion,” defined as “an excessive concern with others and placing others’ needs before one’s own.” To measure an individual’s unmitigated communion, they developed a simple nine-item scale, where people rank themselves from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree” on statements like ● “For me to be happy, I need others to be happy.” ● “I can’t say no when someone asks me for help.” ● “I often worry about others’ problems.” Women typically score higher than men on this scale—and
Research with college students and with older adults finds that unmitigated communion is associated with being “overly nurturant, intrusive, and self-sacrificing.” It is associated with the feeling that others don’t like you and don’t think well of you and with becoming upset when others don’t want your help and don’t take your advice. In laboratory studies, individuals with unmitigated communion are more bothered when a friend turns to someone else for help than when the friend doesn’t get help at all.
High unmitigated communion is associated with poor adjustment, both physically and psychologically, and is linked to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, perhaps because the focus on others keeps those high on the scale from attending to themselves. Helgeson and Fritz speculate that the gender difference here explains women’s greater propensity to anxiety and depression, a conclusion that meshes with the proposal by Barbara Oakley, who, drawing on work on “pathological altruism,” notes, “It’s surprising how many diseases and syndromes commonly seen in women seem to be related to women’s generally stronger empathy for and focus on others.”
So what’s the difference between people who are high in communion (positive) and those who are high in unmitigated communion (negative)? Both sorts of people care about others. But communion corresponds to what we can call concern and compassion, while unmitigated communion ends up relating more to empathy or, more precisely, empathic distress—suffering at the suffering of others.
This distinction between empathy and compassion is critical for the argument I’ve been making throughout this book.
Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”
There is also a practical difference. When people were asked to empathize with those who were suffering, they found it unpleasant. Compassion training, in contrast, led to better feelings on the part of the meditator and kinder behavior toward others.
Less empathy, more kindness.
My friend does get into her clients’ heads, of course—she would be useless if she couldn’t—but she doesn’t feel what they feel. She employs understanding and caring, not empathy.
But what about the more emotional side of empathy? Here it’s more complicated. He seemed to get the most from doctors who didn’t feel as he did, who were calm when he was anxious, confident when he was uncertain. And he was particularly appreciative of certain virtues that have little directly to do with empathy, such as competence, honesty, professionalism, and certainly respect.
But my partiality has limits, and I bet yours does too. If I were hurrying home to join my family for dinner and I passed a lost child, I would help the child find his parents, even if it made me a bit late and caused some mild distress to those I love. So strangers have some weight.
How much money and time—and attention and emotional energy—should we spend on ourselves, on those close to us, and on strangers?
In April of 1945, in the Dachau concentration camp, several men were lined up against the wall, tortured, and shot. Such savagery was typical for Dachau. Tens of thousands of prisoners had been murdered there, through starvation, execution, the gas chamber, and even grotesque medical experiments. But this incident happened after the camp had been liberated. The victims were captured German soldiers, and it was the American liberators who were doing the killing.
The myth of pure evil has many sources. One is what Steven Pinker calls “the moralization gap”—the tendency to diminish the severity of our own acts relative to the acts of others.
In this way, married couples say increasingly hurtful things, and the citizens of clashing nations react with shock and anger when their own tough but fair actions are met with vile atrocities. It’s a wonder we don’t all end up killing each other. The moralization gap is one reason among many that we rarely see ourselves as the evil ones.
As Baumeister puts it, “If we as social scientists restrict our focus to actions that everyone including the perpetrator agrees are evil, we will have almost nothing to study.” It is surprising to see how often the worst people in the world—rapists interviewed in prison, say—see themselves as the real victims. They are wrong to see themselves as innocents, but we are wrong as well to see them as different creatures from the rest of us.
Indeed, some argue that the myth of pure evil gets things backward. That is, it’s not that certain cruel actions are committed because the perpetrators are self-consciously and deliberatively evil. Rather it is because they think they are doing good. They are fueled by a strong moral sense. As Pinker puts it: “The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.”
This might seem perverse. How can good lead to evil? One thing to keep in mind here is that we are interested in beliefs and motivations, not what’s good in some objective sense. So the idea isn’t that evil is good; rather, it’s that evil is done by those who think they are doing good.
Here is his short list of some of the bad things people do: “war, torture, genocide, honour killing, animal and human sacrifice, homicide, suicide, intimate-partner violence, rape, corporal punishment, execution, trial by combat, police brutality, hazing, castration, dueling . . .” What do they have in common? Rai argues that such acts aren’t the result of sadistic urges, self-interest, or loss of control. Rather, the best explanation relates these acts to morality, to “the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.”
Morality is motivating. I read a story earlier today, from many years ago, about a man who went with his wife and children to the beach in Dubai. His older daughter, a twenty-year-old, went out for a swim and started to struggle in the water and scream for help. The father was strong enough to keep two lifeguards from rescuing her. According to a police officer, “He told them that he prefers his daughter being dead than being touched by a strange man.” She drowned. Now you’d be seriously missing the point if you saw the father’s action as the product of sadism, indifference, or psychopathy. It was the product of moral commitment, no different in the father’s mind than if he were struggling to prevent his daughter from being raped.
Steven Pinker has argued that just as a high level of self-control benefits individuals, cultural values that prize self-control are good for a society. Europe, he writes, witnessed a thirtyfold drop in its homicide rate between the medieval and modern periods, and this, he argues, had much to do with the change from a culture of honor to a culture of dignity, which prizes restraint.
Once again, none of this is to deny the importance of traits such as compassion and kindness. We want to nurture these traits in our children and work to establish a culture that prizes and rewards them. But they are not enough. To make the world a better place, we would also want to bless people with more smarts and more self-control. These are central to leading a successful and happy life—and a good and moral one.