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.