Telmo Rodrigues


[Versão em português / Portuguese translation]


Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy belongs to a recent trend of making the case for bold and counter-intuitive claims, usually through a huge amount of scientific and academic apparatus. It is not without some surprise, then, that the research used throughout the book is treated accordingly to the needs of the argument, considered at times sound proof for a belief while many times being rebuffed as inaccurate. For instance, questionnaires provide several types of scales, but we are informed these types of scales are easily misleading as subjects can lie or be influenced by several types of conditions (nonetheless, the Baron-Cohen scale of empathy, classified as problematic, is used several times). At a certain point, a study is given to explain how the place where questionnaires and studies are carried has impact on the results: “People are more likely to vote for sales taxes that will fund education when the polling place is in a school” (160). Besides this, many studies are put into question by counter studies set on proving the first wrong. Given the fickle nature of the research, and of the use given to it, we are left with Mr. Bloom’s ability to argue his case.

Most of Mr. Bloom’s arguments relate to the common usage of the word “empathy,” although he refuses to engage in philological battles: “I hate terminological arguments—nothing important rests on the specific words we use so long as we understand one another” (34). Many familiar with academic work in the Humanities can relate to the emptiness of some philological efforts, for in fact “nothing rests on the word itself” (10). That being so, we are invited to:


forget about the terminology altogether and think of this book as a discussion of morality and moral psychology, exploring what it takes to be a good person.
The idea I’ll explore is that the act of feeling what you think others are feeling—whatever one chooses to call this—is different from being compassionate, from being kind, and most of all, from being good. From a moral standpoint, we’re better off without it. (10)


Calling attention to the many ways in which the word is used, one particular book containing at least nine different definitions for “empathy” (17), Mr. Bloom is aware a definition is nonetheless required to proceed with his claim: “Empathy is the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does” (18); he adds, so we do not take this for a novelty, that it used to be called, in the Scottish Enlightenment, “sympathy.”

If “sympathy” and “empathy” amount to nearly the same, why is it important to preserve the word “empathy”? Mr. Bloom explains:


The English word empathy really is the best way to refer to this mirroring of others’ feelings. It’s better than sympathy (in its modern usage) and pity. These terms are only negative; if you are blissfully happy and as a result I feel blissfully happy, I can be said to empathize with you, but it’s strange to say I feel pity for you or sympathy for you. (34)


We suspect from early on that the cruxes of Mr. Bloom’s quarrels with the use of the word rise from an annoyance at the general consensus, particularly in social media, about how empathy is necessarily good.

The mirroring of feelings is a crucial point in Mr. Bloom’s theory for, as he very well points out: “I would prefer that those who care about me greet my panic with calm and my gloom with good cheer” (111). Empathy, in this sense, would amount to someone feeling exactly the same as another person. The point here is familiar to a now fading trend of assuming the possibility of knowing the “other,” whatever this may mean:


[Empathy] can put us into the mind of a gay teenager bullied by his peers, or a victim of rape. We can empathize with a member of a despised minority or someone suffering from religious persecution in a faraway land. All these experiences are alien to me, but through the exercise of empathy, I can, in some limited way, experience them myself, and this makes me a better person.  (21)


It would be preposterous, if not simply offensive, to believe I can know how it feels to be in any number of these situations, even if I have been through some of them. Even if it is true “other people’s pain really does activate the same brain area as your own pain, and more generally, there is neural evidence for a correspondence between self and other” (48), the activation of the same areas in the brain does not mean we necessarily feel the same. 

We do not always have the exact same feelings as someone when put in the same situation: when relationships end, people do not necessarily share the same feelings (although the closeness in the feelings and reactions might hint at our belonging to a particular culture or, more broadly, to a species). It would even more preposterous to imagine I can feel the exact same thing when not in the same situation: when someone cries over a break up I can empathize, particularly if the person crying is a friend, but I do not necessarily feel the same as the person does (or understand better because I have experienced breakups before). Crying over someone else’s break up is not a direct consequence of feeling the same, but of me caring for the person or for the story told. It seems clear, from the most obvious examples, that Mr. Bloom’s work should concentrate, first and foremost, exactly on the question of terminology: care and empathy clearly get mixed up often.

For the problem left by not dealing with the philological work is the difficulty in assessing the constant shift of meaning in the use given to the word “empathy.” Take another obvious difficulty, the distinction between empathy and compassion:


This distinction between empathy and compassion is critical for the argument I’ve been making throughout this book. And it is supported by neuroscience research. In a review article, Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki describe how they make sense of this distinction: “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.” (102)


No matter what the studies show, or what parts of the brain light up when one answers questionnaires, the point is that the most common uses of the word “empathy” could easily be replaced by “compassion.” One does not require complex studies and scientific work to understand that in most cases people say they feel empathy when they actually feel compassion.

Mr. Bloom’s boldness stumbles upon at least two major difficulties in articulating three words used in the title (“empathy,” “compassion” and “rational”): the discussed distinction between empathy and compassion is one; the other is the notion of “rational compassion,” where both terms seem to contradict themselves. The suspicion about what motivates this work comes back again, as Mr. Bloom addresses a problem made famous by Peter Singer about how our “empathy” towards some charity work can do more harm than good; in the most obvious utilitarian argument, rationality should oblige us to apply our charity in such a way as it can benefit the most, regardless of parochial feelings. Five dollars can help more children in Africa than in a rich country, for instance (in extreme cases, it is more expensive to process a five dollars donation than to have none); the fact we can more easily relate (empathize) to suffering children in our neighborhood should not influence our decision on where to apply our money. Mr. Bloom recognizes the difficulty in this kind of rationality:


[…] I’m not sure what one should think about a person who doesn’t have any special love for friends and family, who cares for everyone equally. Some would see such a persona as a saint. Others, including myself, think this goes too far, and there’s something repellent about living one’s life that way. (13)


Mr. Bloom cannot maintain that extreme rational human beings are right by opposition to those who donate small amounts of money moved by empathy, since it is an impossible standard to keep in our daily lives (the exceptional character of saints is a hint at it):


[…] look at how people cope in everyday life. Look at discussions that adults have over whether to buy a house, what jobs to take, where to send their kids to school, what they should do about an elderly parent. Look at the social negotiations that occur among friends deciding where to go for dinner, planning a hike, figuring out how to help someone who just had a baby. Or even look at different sort of politics—the type of politics where individuals might actually make a difference, such as a town hall meeting where people discuss zoning regulations and where to put a stop sign.
My own experience is that the level of rational discourse here is high. People know that they are involved in real decision processes, so they work to exercise their rational capacities: They make arguments, express ideas, and are receptive to the ideas of others. They sometimes even change their minds. (172)


One might look at these (and other) examples and conclude that for each rational decision, one can come up with an example of an impulsive decision (who does not know of someone buying a house or taking a job by impulse?). Mr. Bloom’s claim that we act more rationally than empathically when we have responsibilities is a poor conclusion for empathy’s perniciousness: how many propositions have been made in town halls on the basis of empathy for neighbors in need? Responsibility does not make our decisions less vulnerable to feelings.

To extricate rationality from our sentimentally motivated actions is one of the difficult arguments in Mr. Bloom’s book:


It shouldn’t be surprising that morality can incite violence. Morality leads to action; it gets you to stick your nose in other people’s business. I don’t like raisins. But this isn’t a moral belief, so it just means that I don’t eat raisins; it doesn’t motivate me to harass others who behave differently than I do toward raisins. I also don’t like murder. But this is a moral belief, so it motivates me to try to stop others from doing this, to encourage the government to punish them, and so on. In this way, moral beliefs motivate action, including violent action. (134)


The case against Mr. Bloom is made by himself, when he admits to having “argued that we rely too much on gut feelings and emotional responses to guide our judgments and behaviors. Doing so isn’t a mistake like a mathematical error, but it’s a mistake nonetheless and leads to needless suffering. We are often irrational animals” (154). The author’s proposition is then not directed at empathy in itself, but at certain behaviors being justified as based on intuition or “gut feelings.” Indeed, we are often irrational animals and what makes us less irrational is the possibility of justifying oneself: even the most irrational actions can be understood under certain justifications. If we donate five dollars to an organization which would benefit more if we gave them nothing, we can justify ourselves with our ignorance on the matter, our willingness to help and lack of opportunity to do more, or simply with the selfishness of wanting others to know we are doing something for those less fortunate; but we can easily empathize with others’ misfortunes and do nothing. Empathy, and morality for that matter, does not necessarily prompt us to action. Mr. Bloom’s annoyance at people using “empathy” to justify actions is most certainly a fair reaction to many discourses we encounter these days, but it is not completely clear in which way could empathy be bad or, more precisely, in what circumstances does it matter whether we use empathy to justify ourselves: it is just a quarrel with bad justifications. In the end, it seems a mere question of terminology at the far end of the chain of consequences set by an action, whereas actions in themselves are much more relevant to understand human behavior and, by inference, human morality.