Against Empathy? No Way!

There’s an intriguing exchange at the Boston Review Forum on the use and justification (or lack thereof) of empathy. The spar is between psychologist Paul Bloom and a host of star-studded critics (among them Jesse Prinz, Simon Baron Cohen, Peter Singer and Sam Harris). I have a personal interest in this topic as I work with prisoners, and much of the work I do with them involves empathy based support. I don’t have time to delve into merits and demerits of what Bloom says, but what he does say is worth thinking about even if what he says is puzzling or just plain false. Case in point:

Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data.

The takeaway line seems to be we’re all thoroughly biased in favour of looks, height, hair length/colour, ethno-tribal/national similarity, etc., thus too incapacitated for genuine empathy. And when we are genuinely empathetic we’re too focused on individuals as opposed to collectives or masses.

I’m lost on what all this is supposed to prove, assuming it proves anything apart from Bloom’s prior convictions. Assume we (Bloom as well?) are prone to feel empathy for attractive people, and equally assume we’re just as likely to feel empathy for those who share our ethnic or national background as we are for those who are attractive. What does that say about empathy as such? How do our inclinations towards “attractive” people underscore the biased or unbiased nature of empathy? Whatever the aetiology of our inclinations, they in themselves say nothing about empathy. Thus Bloom’s point is not only overblown but a blatant non sequitur.

As for empathy’s specificity, I’d like to know what Bloom has in mind for broad empathy, focused on groups or collectives or masses and what it would look like. Empathy only works on persons. And, without begging any essential questions, groups qua groups, collectives, and masses aren’t persons.

My nit-pickings aside, mosey on over to BRF.

4 thoughts on “Against Empathy? No Way!

  1. I read Bloom’s article but not the comments. You’re right–it’s a hopeless article. For one thing, it’s not even clear what the thesis is supposed to be. He starts out by telling us he’s “against” empathy, but ends up saying he merely wants to put empathy in its place. Well, those are hardly the same claim. One basic problem throughout the article is a conflation between empathy as a guide to action and the role of empathy in action. Empathy may be a poor guide to action because it’s not meant to be a guide to action at all. It doesn’t follow, and isn’t true, that empathy should be discouraged. Empathy is a moral feeling. Feelings aren’t action-guiding (except insofar as they indicate underlying judgments), but it doesn’t follow that emotional repression is the route to tracking the truth about morality.

    I know you’re busy as hell, but I’d love to get a post from you at some point on the work you do with prisoners, how it relates to empathy, and how the two things relate to philosophy.


    • Irfan,
      Great point! Sadly, many in my line of work often conflate empathy as-a-guide-to-action and the-role-of-empathy-in-action and fret that the former isn’t thoroughly action guiding in the way principles are. But it’s not clear to me why (or how for that matter) empathy should be action guiding. I could sense the same frustration throughout Bloom’s essay. On another note, I was hoping Bloom would have devoted space to the difference between affective empathy and cognitive empathy and what positive or negative role they play in action.

      As for posting on my prisoner work, I plan to do just that. I haven’t said much about it since it’s still in its infancy. That said, I will write up something on prisoner guilt and filial piety. Guilt is a gigantic topic on its own in both psychology and philosophy. There’s a small but growing interest in filial piety in philosophy. However, there’s virtually nothing on prisoner guilt. What I’ve discovered is that the prisoners I’ve been working with often associate their guilt with filial piety or family shame. (I should add my clients are primarily young Muslims) I find that interesting. In the next few months I hope to flesh out my thoughts and bring my work and conclusions to a wider context. I’d be more than happy to share it with you as well as the POT readership.

      Enjoy the trip!


      • I look forward to reading whatever you write. I’d be interested to see how your observations contrast (or compare) with those of Theodore Dalrymple, the conservative British psychiatrist who writes on his experiences with prisoners in British prisons (especially young Muslim convicts). I personally can’t stand Dalrymple or his writings but have often wondered how much truth there is in what he writes.

        Re shame, a friend/colleague of mine, Bongrae Seok, has just published a book on Confucian ethics that discusses shame, Embodied Moral Psychology and Confucian Philosophy. I haven’t read the book, but he presented parts of it at the Felician Ethics Conference over the course of a few years. I commented on his 2009 paper on whether shame was a virtue; he said “yes,” and I said “no.” My comment drew a bit on Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame, which I highly recommend (Shame and Fury are, in my opinion, Rushdie’s best two novels, even though Satanic Verses gets the glory). If I get a chance, maybe I’ll dig up the comment and put it up on the site.


  2. Pingback: New Blogger: Hendrik Van den Berg | Policy of Truth

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