“Against Empathy” makes a hell of a title for a video. It’s bold and spicy! Empathy is bad is quite a strong take, after all, given that empathy—broadly speaking, the capacity to relate to and share the feelings and perspectives of others—is a core, defining trait of humanity, which will tend to be the largest demographic sector of any video’s viewership. This week, The Atlantic published a video with that title on its website. It is bad and stupid, the latest absurdity (and one of the lowest) to which the “well-credentialed people saying wrong yet arresting things” industry has reduced the collective knowledge of humankind.
“Empathy is fundamentally, from a moral standpoint, a bad thing,” says the video’s star, Yale psychology and cognitive science professor Paul Bloom. “It makes the world worse.” This is followed by two and a half minutes of superficially authoritative-sounding aphorisms and blank, unsupported assertions, arranged to suggest that each proceeds from the one before and thus that an argument—rather than a sequence of dubious hyper-rationalist non-sequiturs dressing up a stale banality about mindfulness (Think before you do stuff!) that any six-year-old could impart as a provocative, counterintuitive insight into empathy and social psychology—is being presented.
Here is the reason Bloom offers to explain why empathy is bad: “Empathy blinds you to long-term consequences of your actions.” Does it? I kind of don’t think it does, but then again, presumably the reason this video exists is so that the mind-science professor can make this case persuasively. Here is his first bit of evidence:
It’s because of empathy that the whole world cares so much more about a baby stuck in a well than we do about global warming.
Hmm. At first glance this kind of seems true, or true-ish. You say, Hey, yeah! Everybody gets all freaked out when a cute baby is in trouble, but global warming is a much bigger and more important concern and people seem less freaked out! The only problem here—and it’s more of a minor quibble over the details, really—is that this is complete nonsense, and cannot withstand even a microsecond of critical interrogation, and probably Yale tuition is a big fucking waste of money if its professors in subjects explicitly related to the human mind are clumsy or cynical enough in the use of their own human minds to say a thing like this out loud, even alone in their bathrooms.
Maybe you think that purporting to compare quantities of worldwide caring over two completely different types of problems—one acute and local, the other chronic and global—is self-evidently asinine, since global warming cannot be addressed via anything even vaguely like the same measures or in the same timeframe as one applies to the baby that just fell down that well over there. Maybe you think that the rapt attention bored people in an airport waiting area pay to the wall-mounted TV when it is showing live breaking video of a cute kid in mortal danger is actually not all that meaningful or valuable a variety of “care” in the first place. Maybe you think that if anyone (an American academic, say) with the least smidgen of curiosity about the actual world were to pick pretty much any cardinal direction and walk in it, eventually he would bump into whole entire public schools full of children whose day-to-day existences stand in harsh and grim testimony to the emptiness of the kind of “care” “the whole world” has for small children trapped in wells both metaphorical and literal. Don’t worry! You don’t actually have to think that much about it, because before you even get to all that, the entire assertion crumbles to dust. To see how, just look at what Bloom offers as proof of the evils of empathy:
The philosopher Peter Singer gives an example of, um, of what he calls “Warm Glow Altruists,” for charities. So, what they do ... they give to a lot of different charities, and they give a little bit of money to each one, because for each one they get a little rush: “Oh, I’m helping the blind babies,” “Oh, I’m helping the, y’know, the farm workers,” “Oh, I’m helping the chickens.”
He is not even talking about empathy. He is talking about ego gratification. That is a whole different thing! One might even say it is the opposite thing.
And the problem is, when you give a small amount of money to a charity, often it doesn’t do much good because the money they need to process your donation in some cases actually is such that the charity takes a loss on your donation.
Again: this has fuck-all to do with empathy. Paul Bloom’s argument is that empathy is bad because people sometimes choose to act on it by making uninformed, poorly thought-out, self-serving choices, in which case what’s actually bad is slovenly, impulsive, self-serving decision-making, which emphatically is not empathy.
People make bad, harmful-to-the-world decisions on the basis of craven self-interest all the time—you’ll recognize that dynamic from such hits as pretty much all of the fucked-up shit in the entire world, all the time, forever—but “Against Blithe Self-Gratification,” of course, is neither a provocative title for a video, nor (more to the point) an especially provocative idea. (Nobody really needs to be told—well, most people don’t need to be told—that blithe self-gratification is not much good for the world.) Acting as if you’re saying something other than what you’re actually saying, though, allows you to bring in the dreaded false binary:
So Singer describes Warm Glow Altruists, who basically give because they get a buzz out of it, as opposed to what he calls “Effective Altruists.” And Effective Altruists say, “What does the world need? How could I use my money to best ends? How could I volunteer and act to make things better?” And Singer argues, I think convincingly, that it’s the Effective Altruists that make a bigger change in the world.
What’s that you’re screaming, using the side of your laptop to saw at your own neck in desperate hopes of detaching your own head? Where is the proof that these two groups differ in empathy, rather than in, say, wisdom? Where is absolutely any indication that Peter Singer’s Effective Altruists (shitty band name, by the way) are motivated any less by empathy than the Warm Glow Altruists are? Could one not just as easily say that Peter Singer’s Effective Altruists are an example of empathy unclouded by the selfish, un-empathetic impulse toward ego gratification, and thus argue for, rather than against, the utility of empathy? I know! For I, too, am screaming this. I, too, saw at my own neck in rage.
The unexamined premise, here—or, well, one of the unexamined premises, because actually no premises receive the slightest scrutiny in this garbage video airing the half-cooked takes of a thinkfluencer nitwit trying to sell his sub-Gladwellian bullshit to people who will like being told that their sociopathic inability to conceive of the experiences and feelings of other human beings is a net benefit to the world—is that empathy is what spurs charitable donation in the first place. The corollary is that patterns of charitable donation provide insight into empathy’s role in society. Wouldn’t that be nice? It would be nice if you could answer a question like, “Is an essential trait of humanity good for the world?” by looking at the itemized tax returns of people with enough money to give some away.
Still, though, maybe you can’t. Maybe the good done by commonplace acts of empathy—like holding the door to your apartment building open for the harried, exhausted-looking shitbag carrying two armloads of groceries and special medicated formula for colicky babies and still wearing his work clothes at 8:45 at night, because, buddy, you can imagine what that’s like and have an impulse to do a kindness for that sorry fucker—resists such easy quantification as whether “in some cases” it leads to a net loss of funds for a charitable organization still one degree removed from the actual human beings an empathetic act would be intended to benefit. Maybe Paul Bloom is full of shit!
Don’t worry about that, though, because this bad video gets a lot worse! The next part is about how people make war because they feel too much empathy.
A lot of our failures to make the world a better place, but also a lot of our awful actions, are motivated by a sort of moralistic rush. Empathic engagement, being caught up in the suffering of victims, is usually the number-one argument in a democratic country for going to war.
Here again is a casually deceptive—a dishonest—conflation. Moralism is not empathy; it rather emphatically is a completely different, often starkly opposite, thing! It can motivate societies into war and atrocity even in the complete, pathological absence of empathy.
As evidence of his claim, Bloom asserts that an appeal to empathy is “how the government persuaded us to support the war in Iraq.” This makes you wonder if Paul Bloom was even alive in 2002 and 2003. The Iraq War was sold by a naked and shameless appeal to every impulse but empathy: the bloodthirsty desire to avenge national pride wounded by the September 11th attacks; the fear of fictional weapons of mass destruction; intonations that Iraqi governments had supported and/or would actively and materially support acts of terrorism on American soil. History will remember the aughts as America’s proud and unapologetic vacation from empathy, years when a healthy voting majority of Americans decided not to care about anything but our own feelings of insecurity and desire for vengeance.
Here is a statement so obviously true that even typing it is kind of embarrassing: Empathy, no matter how it can be or has been twisted or subverted or put to bad or thoughtless use, is good; it is not, has not been, and will not ever be the cause of anywhere near so much human suffering as self-interest. Still, here is Paul Bloom:
Our empathy, our selfish moralizing,
zooms us in and says, “Oh my God, there are these people suffering, let’s bomb the crap out of ‘em, let’s destroy the whole country to save these people. And then people are later surprised that, oh gosh, apparently, y’know, we’ve killed 50,000 people. Gosh, who would’ve known?
Is it really empathy that makes us focus in on narrow concerns and miss the humanity of others so totally that we kill them by the thousands without even noticing? Truly, too much empathy is what does that, and not, say, ignorance or the blithe recklessness that results from indoctrination in the idea that any problem in the world can be solved if the West shoots at it enough? Definitely this is an example of empathy, rather than stupidity or cruelty, making people blind or indifferent to the consequences of their choices? In all other respects we are doing things just right! Except for we are doing too much imaginative sharing of others’ frames of reference. This is an assertion that has been made by a wise man.
The wise man here ends his case against empathy by telling people this:
If you really want to make the world better, spend less time trying to maximize your own altruistic joy
“Trying to maximize your altruistic joy”: Yet another thing that is not empathy, nor even all that much like empathy, but which Paul Bloom would like you to think is empathy, so that you will agree that empathy is bad.
and in a more cold-blooded way, think, “How can I help other people?”
Arguing for war because you’re caught up in the suffering of others is, if anything, not a matter of having too much empathy, but too little—of being unable to imagine yourself in the position of the people at whom you want to fire bullets and rockets, or the people near them, or the people you will ask to risk their lives firing them, and so unable to make calculations about the relative moral weights of action and inaction. It’s a failure of the ability to understand how actions affect others, and what it might be like to be so affected—a failure of, well, empathy.
“Don’t just do the first thing you think of when you hear about something bad happening to other people, but take time to think about how what you do affects them!” says the clever man who claims he wants you to stop feeling bad about bad things happening to other people. Quit with the empathy, and spend more time thinking about how best to help other people instead!
Hello friends! Empathy is what makes you worth anything. Empathy is what makes you feel bad for Paul Bloom for having felt compelled to present a ludicrous and self-negating argument that amounts in the end to Think about other people and do good things instead of bad ones. Empathy, on the whole, is good.
Don’t go to Yale. Thank you.