“Against Empathy:” A Dive into Rational Compassion

If you’re looking for a wicked dive into the subject of empathy, it can be found in Paul Bloom’s book, Against Empathy, where he argues that readers should replace empathy with rational compassion. It’s an impassioned, critical, and sometimes funny look at the subject with an author who ends up agreeing that empathy has at least some utility in our lives. (It better! Since we’re apparently wired for it.)

Against Empathy CoverBloom doesn’t “deny that empathy can sometimes have good results,” such as saving a drowning child and a myriad of other examples he provides, but he’s critical when it’s employed on issues that require reason for those good results. To save a drowning child requires an emergency or gut reaction. To save, let’s say, a lot of children dying of cancer, however, requires that empathy transform itself from the gut to a brain reaction; not the one that says, “Save them all.” but the one that considers reality, such as limited resources, and thus determines which child is best suited to save first.

The connection between empathy and morality is made, which seems to rank empathy up there with love, hate, and ethics. For instance, are you one who laughs at prison rape jokes?

According to Bloom, we do that because “stories about the horrific conditions inside American prisons rarely capture people’s interest … [and] although they touch the lives of millions, most people don’t care about those millions.” If we transcended ourselves using Bloom’s “rational compassion” philosophy, we would believe that something needed to done about prison conditions.

So why aren’t we doing anything? Why doesn’t anything get done?

Because human beings are irrational animals. Hey! We all know someone like that.

Put into perspective, “Bloom reveals empathy to be one of the leaing motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices.”[i]

Since we are not always rational beings, especially when it comes to the knee-jerk nature of empathy, we would have to mindfully choose to rise above the irrationality of empathy and use rational compassion to make ourselves better people. (Isn’t that what we all want?) Bloom tells you how to do that in a round-about way, starting with a whole chapter dedicated to defining empathy and others that delve into politics, intimacy, morality, and evil. It turns out that empathy has everything to do with a lot more areas of our lives than you might expect.


Endnote

[i] New York Post Best Book of 2016.

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