Review of “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom

So, a short review here of “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom. Being someone who is in general suspicious of empathy and particularly in its use in morality, the idea of someone else arguing directly against that interested me, which is why I picked up the book, to see what his overall arguments were.

One of the things that Bloom is careful to do is to separate the various types of empathy, which I’ll talk about using my terms for them (and not his): affective empathy, which is feeling what other people are feeling, cognitive empathy, which is knowing what other people are feeling, and moral empathy, which is caring about what they are feeling beyond what benefit you get from it. Bloom thinks that many people are conflating affective empathy with the other two, which causes them to think that affective empathy is required for being moral. And it’s easy to see how that can happen, since a pretty good case can be made that a moral person a) has to care about what other people are feeling to determine what the right moral action is and thus b) has to know what someone is or will actually feel. Bloom’s argument, though, is that in general affective empathy isn’t all that great at doing that and even at lining up with our general moral intuitions. The reasons he gives are pretty much in line with my general objections to using empathy as a moral basis: empathy tends towards in-group and out-group thinking, and also causes the issue of preferring the minor pain of, say, our own child over the deaths of unknown strangers. It also encourages the idea of “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” because we simply aren’t capable of engaging in actual affective empathy for people beyond a very small number. So if we are using affective empathy to get morality, once we hit large numbers of people that we need to consider the interests of we simply aren’t going to be capable of doing that.

For me, though, while reading it I had a revelation that empathy cannot be a moral basis because it can never be a justification for a moral action. If you take an action that you think is moral and someone else insists that what you did was immoral, you are never going to be able to defend yourself by simply saying that you were right about what someone — even yourself — was feeling or would feel in that situation. At a minimum, you are going to have to outline why those feelings would mean that what you did was moral, which means that you are going to have to appeal to some other underlying moral principle, like maximizing everyone’s happiness, or maximizing your own happiness, or chasing virtue, or chasing duty, or whatever. So those feelings end up being data points that may or may not matter in determining what is the properly moral course, but don’t in and of themselves determine what is or isn’t moral. Thus, cognitive and moral empathy are tools that provide data that can be used to determine what is and isn’t moral, but don’t define it, and I think most people who argue strongly for empathy as a basis for morality treat it as something that they can just run and use to determine what is moral without appealing to other moral principles. And, shockingly, they tend to be willing to act in ways that seem quite immoral to most towards people that they don’t like or don’t understand.

Bloom’s arguments and the book itself are generally pretty good. It’s mostly a collection of essays that are turned into chapters, and as such it gets awfully repetitive, and it isn’t philosophically deep in any way, but I think he nicely captures the different types of empathy and their impact on the debate, as well as some strong arguments for why empathy isn’t the right way to approach morality. It might have been nice if he had focused on some more philosophical counters instead of merely focusing on the practical argument that empathy was generally ineffective and led to moral contradictions, but it’s an approachable book that summarizes a number of useful discussions on empathy and its relation to morality.

One Response to “Review of “Against Empathy” by Paul Bloom”

  1. Thoughts on “Knives Out” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] wonder if the real cause of this is a failure of empathy, by which I mean cognitive empathy as opposed to affective empathy.  I’m sure that for some people the links to immigration and to privilege and to right-wing […]

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