In this blog and in my book The Last Psychoanalyst I have inveighed against our modern tendency to make empathy the seat of all moral virtue.
At times, I seemed to be nearly alone in holding this viewpoint. Now, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, at work on a book about empathy has declared that he is against it.
He argues the point persuasively in the Boston Review and I will review his ideas at length.
By way of an introduction, I point out that most of the confusion about empathy lies in the fact that the therapy culture had made empathy the basis for moral behavior.
To be clear, empathy is a feeling, it is an emotion. You do not act empathically or even empathetically.
Being moral means following rules or laws. Some will argue that empathy motivates people to follow rules, but it need not. Empathy does not tell you what to do or what not to do.
Confucius said that it’s better to follow rules, to perform rituals without the right feeling than not to do it at all. If so, people are motivated, not by their feelings, but by their sense of propriety.
Making empathy the basis for morality is to misunderstand the basis for morality.
Bloom introduces his thought here:
… I’ve come to realize that taking a position against empathy is like announcing that you hate kittens—a statement so outlandish it can only be a joke. And so I’ve learned to clarify, to explain that I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.
For our edification he defines his term. Empathy involves feeling someone else’s pain. It’s the ultimate Clintonian virtue.
But there are different kinds of empathy. Normally, we recognize that someone is in pain by reading facial expressions and tone of voice. When we do so we change our own facial expressions. This produces a recognizable emotion. It helps us to identify what we are seeing, but it does not necessarily mean that we are feeling the other person’s pain.
In truth, if you want to be precise, we can never really feel anyone else’s pain.
Bloom defines his terms here:
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but here I am adopting its most common meaning, which corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy. I will follow this convention here, but we should keep in mind that the two are distinct—they emerge from different brain processes; you can have a lot of one and a little of the other—and that most of the discussion of the moral implications of empathy focuses on its emotional side.
He adds the following:
In general, empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it is a force against selfishness and indifference.
In part, this is true. Empathy, by my theory is an attempt to form an unmediated connection with another person. Since that kind of connection is impossible in reality, empathy allows people to live in a fiction.
One must add that selfishness and indifference are constituted by behaviors. You might behave selfishly or indifferently, but that might also be the result of the fact that you do not know any better. It does not necessarily say anything about your heart.
Next, Bloom begins to make his case against empathy:
Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.
Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction. Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of vaccinating children and responding to climate change. These acts impose costs on real people in the here and now for the sake of abstract future benefits, so tackling them may require overriding empathetic responses that favor the comfort and well being of individuals today. We can rethink humanitarian aid and the criminal justice system, choosing to draw on a reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences.
Bloom makes an interesting point. Others have argued that empathy can inhibit action. (It is not an accident that empathy is based on pathos, which is something that you suffer, while action is something that you do.) When you empathize with someone who is in anguish because he does not know what to do you too will feel that you do not know what to do.
Moreover, in his most salient point, Bloom remarks that empathy only pertains to relationships with other individuals. It numbs us to larger, more systemic problems and issues.
He adds, importantly that people who are good at what he calls “unmitigated communion,” or what I would call an unmediated connection are prey to the feelings of others, both positive and negative. This is what it means to suffer an emotion or a passion.
In his words:
Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety.
Continuing, he compares empathy with compassion:
A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.
It might also be of little help to other people because experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout.
Bloom then notes that when you consult with a physician you do not want him to feel your pain. You want a doctor who can express a calm confidence when you are feeling anxious. Often when we consult with a physician we make note of his emotions and use them to gauge the severity of our illness.
He gets the most from doctors who don’t feel as he does, who are calm when he is anxious, confident when he is uncertain. And he particularly appreciates certain virtues that have little directly to do with empathy, virtues such as competence, honesty, professionalism, and respect.
As is well known, psychologists have latched on to empathy because it glorifies feelings. And Bloom remarks, it glorifies a capacity in which women excel more than men. It’s yet another effort to feminize the world… the better to makes us more civilized, I assume.
Since psychologists believe that psychopathy is defined by a lack of empathy, they assume that a dose of empathy will cure it. One must note that most psychopaths are of the male persuasion.
To which Bloom responds, cogently:
… many people diagnosed with psychopathy are excellent at reading others’ minds. This is what enables them to be such masterful manipulators, con men, and seducers. But the emotional part is thought to be absent—they cannot feel other people’s pain—and this is why psychopaths are such terrible people.
Of course, psychopaths might very well feel someone else’s pain and enjoy it. For some people pain is a source of pleasure.
One might say that psychopaths are terrible people, not because they do not feel the right feelings, but because of the way they behave. They are proud of their bad character and take joy in abusing the good character of other people.
They do not follow the rules, but break them with impunity. They take advantage of those who follow rules and are thrilled when they get away with something. One doubts that their condition will be cured by a putting them on an empathy drip.
It is fair to say that psychopaths are self-centered, but it might also be the case that theirs is a politically and culturally subversive act.