Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive sciences at Yale, has written a thoughtful criticism of the widespread assumption that we can improve the world by increasing our empathy. In his farewell address, for example, President Barack Obama said that empathy for those who are different is an essential pillar of democracy. Political polarization could be reduced if Republicans and Democrats had more empathy for one another. Teachers, psychologists, and politicians suggest that lack of empathy lies behind complacency toward Native Americans, judgmentalism toward opioid addicts, and hostility toward immigrants. If we felt the pain of the afflicted, it is often assumed, we would want to take proactive steps to help them.
Bloom doubts it. He rejects the assumption that empathy is either a strong motivator of moral goodness or a proper guide to moral decision making. One can identify emotionally with the suffering of others but not do anything about it; conversely, one can offer effective assistance to another person without echoing his or her internal states.
Bloom goes even further in arguing that empathy is actually responsible for more harm than good. A wide array of studies in social psychology and neuroscience show that empathy is highly context sensitive, shortsighted, mood dependent, narrowly focused, biased, and parochial. People who want to alleviate their “empathic distress” can simply remove themselves rather than help the victim they are empathizing with. We are much more prone to feel empathically toward someone whom we perceive to be like us than with strangers. Empathy functions like a spotlight that calls our attention to particular people but leaves others outside our empathic engagement. Intense empathy for members of one’s own group is perfectly consistent with aggression toward those we don’t know or who are unlike us.
Bloom’s own normative moral perspective is rather eclectic. He attacks empathy but values compassionate caring for those who suffer. But he wants rational compassion: utilitarian “effective altruism” is a policy of always acting in ways that maximizes the well-being of the greatest number of people possible. Bloom does not talk about the well-known limits of our capacity accurately to predict the consequences of our actions under complex circumstances over extended stretches of time and place. In any case, he confesses that in real life we have to use common sense rather than consistently apply an impartial cost-benefit analysis of possible courses of action. He shifts from what psychologists call System 2 thinking (conscious, rational, deliberative, slow) to System 1 thinking (quick, unconscious, intuitive, fast) without offering any principled account of when or why one ought to take priority over the other. This puts him in the awkward position of implying, for example, that acting as a good parent (say, paying for your child’s violin lessons) makes you a bad person (because family priority violates the requirements of impartial beneficence), and vice versa. Bloom’s desire to avoid fanaticism is laudable, but in the end he is left saying that he has adopted utilitarianism because it is intuitively correct to him...except when it is not.