Re-evaluating empathy

We tend to put empathy on a pedestal. You can find almost religious reverence of it all over the internet, including business blogs, self-help articles, and even guides on how to fix the world. Its appeal is evident—it can strengthen our relationships and spur us to commit acts of kindness. But if we cut through the rosy din, we find that empathy may have a dark underside. Gaining traction in the fields of social psychology and moral philosophy is the opinion that empathy often corrupts our sense of morality and, in aggregate, makes the world worse.

The idea has been popularized by Paul Bloom, a psychology professor who claims in his latest book, Against Empathy, that humanity suffers not from a lack of empathy but from an excess. His argument is that too much emotional engagement with a situation can blind us to the long-term, objective consequences of our choices. He illustrates this point in an interview with Vox’s Sean Illing:

Empathy’s design failings have to do with the fact that it acts like a spotlight. It zooms you in. But spotlights only illuminate where you point them at, and for that reason empathy is biased. I’m likely to feel empathy toward you, a handsome white guy, but somebody who is repulsive or frightening I don’t feel empathy for. I actually feel a lot less empathy for people who aren’t in my culture, who don’t share my skin color, who don’t share my language. This is a terrible fact of human nature, and it operates at a subconscious level, but we know that it happens. There’s dozens, probably hundreds, of laboratory experiments looking at empathy and they find that empathy is as biased as can be.

The second problem is the innumeracy. Empathy zooms me in on one but it doesn’t attend to the difference between one and 100 or one and 1,000. It’s because of empathy we often care more about a single person than 100 people or 1,000 people, or we care more about an attractive white girl who went missing than we do 1,000 starving children who don’t look like we do or live where we live. So it might feel good, but empathy often leads us to make stupid and unethical decisions.”

The fact that emotions can weigh heavily on our moral decisions is not news. Many experiments, such as this one from psychologist Joshua Greene and his colleagues, show that moral decision-making often engages areas of the brain involved in complex reasoning as well as areas involved in emotion. And in moral dilemmas where there is a conflict between those two areas, such as the well-known trolley problem, the emotional side can win out, often resulting in a choice that works against the greater good.

A widespread and particularly devastating example of this phenomenon, Bloom argued during an interview with The Atlantic, is war.

“Empathic engagement—being caught up in the suffering of victims—is usually the number one argument in a democratic country for going to war. It’s how the government persuaded us to support the war in Iraq. If we ever go to war against ISIS, a full-blown military war, it will be motivated by our feelings for the suffering of their victims.

But that’s just one consideration. The other consideration is: How many people die in wars? How many more victims will they create? But our empathy, our selfish moralizing, zooms us in and says ‘Oh my god, there are these people suffering. Let’s bomb the crap out of them. Let’s destroy the whole country to save these people.’ And then people are later surprised that, oh gosh, apparently we’ve killed 50,000 people.”

Bloom’s alternative to unrestrained empathy is something he calls rational compassion. To be rationally compassionate is to give due consideration to emotional information without being tethered to it. It means cautiously weighing both reason and emotion and then striking a balance between the two so as to maximize aggregate welfare. In the example above, it would mean critically evaluating our emotional connections with the victims of a conflict and balancing it with all of the other relevant factors before making a decision.

This kind of critical self-evaluation is essential to a growing philosophical and social movement known as effective altruism, which aims to find the most efficient ways to do good. Proponents of effective altruism, like philosopher Peter Singer, are skeptical of the warm, fuzzy feeling we get when we help someone in need, in large part because of how biased our sense of empathy can be. Effective altruism often necessitates a cold and calculated approach to doing good—an approach that, like rational compassion, involves a more distant view of our own emotions.

Effective altruism is especially relevant to the practice of charitable giving. Consider the following from a talk by Singer back in 2013:

“Take, for example, providing a guide dog for a blind person. That’s a good thing to do, right? Well, right, it is a good thing to do, but you have to think about what else you could do with the resources. It costs about $40,000 to train a guide dog and train the recipient so that the guide dog can be an effective help to a blind person. It costs somewhere between $20 and $50 to cure a blind person in a developing country if they have trachoma. So you do the sums, and you get something like that. You could provide one guide dog for one blind American, or you could cure between 400 and 2,000 people of blindness. I think it’s clear what’s the better thing to do.”

Now, this is not a call to abandon the goal of pairing blind people with guide dogs—in many cases it’s still a worthwhile pursuit. However, people like Singer argue that we should give much more consideration than we currently do to maximizing the altruistic potential of our resources. To that end, many people have taken it upon themselves to create guides to the most effective charities.

Empathy can sometimes overpower and blind us, rewarding our acts of goodness with visceral self-satisfaction despite how biased or inefficient they may be. Bloom, Singer, and many others argue that the challenge is upon us to cultivate rational compassion and calibrate our moral compasses in a way that doesn’t always lead to that warm, empathic glow.

So, if you’re going to be charitable this holiday season, or at any other time of the year, be a bit skeptical of your sense of empathy; don’t go chasing that warm, fuzzy, “I helped” feeling. Instead, treat it like shopping—chase the best bang for your buck.

2 Replies to “Re-evaluating empathy”

  1. Your examples are LACK of empathy. Ignoring starving kids is the opposite of empathy. Might’ve been more accurate to frame the problem as ‘selective’ or ‘incomplete’ empathy.


    1. Paul Bloom said “Empathy zooms me in on one but it doesn’t attend to the difference between one and 100 or one and 1,000. It’s because of empathy we often care more about a single person than 100 people or 1,000 people, or we care more about an attractive white girl who went missing than we do 1,000 starving children who don’t look like we do or live where we live.”

      So I think I he’d say ignoring starving children might sound like a lack of empathy, but it’s really a pretty common unintended consequence of it. Empathy “zooms us in” to those who are near us and look like us, often at the expense of the larger picture (e.g., suffering children on the other side of the world).


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