I’m reading a piece by Paul Bloom in the Boston Review arguing that empathy is a bad thing. I say it in the present tense because I haven’t finished yet; I stopped to argue with something he said, before finishing the whole thing, because I feel like it. If I were reading it offline I would do the same thing in a notebook. (So it will probably turn out that he answers the question, but I want to say anyway.)
Most people see the benefits of empathy as akin to the evils of racism: too obvious to require justification. I think this is a mistake. I have argued elsewhere that certain features of empathy make it a poor guide to social policy. 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.
In light of these features, our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside. 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.
No I don’t think so; I think without empathy we don’t care for the one death or the hundred deaths; we don’t care about any. Empathy is the building block for caring about any. It’s not enough by itself; you do need more; but if you have zero you just don’t give a rat’s ass. You extrapolate from close up and personal empathy to a kind of (admittedly attenuated) empathy for the distant millions.
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.
That’s just not very convincing. The future benefits aren’t really abstract; they are about the suffering or rescue from suffering of future people. Remember those videos about pertussis? Remember watching that poor infant gasping and choking for breath? Made us all feel super-passionate about vaccination, didn’t it? Because without it you risk people gasping and choking. A whole bunch of people who had had a bout with pertussis told their stories of it right here. And I think a rethink of humanitarian aid and the criminal justice system that’s completely stripped of empathy would be a dud of a rethink. Here in the US we’ve already got a criminal justice system that’s damn short on empathy, and it’s a fucking disgrace.