cover image Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

Paul Bloom. Ecco, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-233933-1

Psychologist Bloom (Just Babies) makes the provocative argument that empathy is not the vital catalyst for human morality it is thought to be, and that the impulse toward empathetic feelings should, in fact, be suppressed. The argument centers on empathetic bias, where people favor those they can more easily relate to, which in Bloom’s analysis leads to “parochialism and racism.” Furthermore, empathy often gets hijacked by individual political persuasions, and its “spotlight” focus can bypass rational thought, ignoring important context. Bloom takes aim at scientific claims about “mirror neurons” supposedly linked to empathetic thought, and at the use of empathy-measuring scales in laboratory settings. He also points out the misery that occurs for those who experience empathy too deeply. Bloom’s solution is a morality based on “self-control,” “intelligence,” and “diffuse compassion,” an innate kindness that exists in people independent of empathy. Not surprisingly, his prescriptions don’t quite convince. His political arguments are obtuse. His assertion that moral feelings about issues like global warming exist without immediate victims to empathize with is only true if one does not take into account caring for one’s children’s futures. Still, there is something here. While Bloom may not entirely vanquish empathy, he makes a powerful appeal for a more reasonable and responsible deployment of it. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman. (Dec.)