The Boston Review has a wonderful discussion about empathy. There is an extended article by Paul Bloom, a highly regarded prof in psychology at Yale, which argues that empathy as normally concieved is no friend to moral action. There are comments from a panel of people that includes very familiar philosophical names, such as Peter Singer and Jesse Prinz.
Bloom’s main claim is that emotional empathy is very partial and biased; what is needed for morality is a much more intellectually based compassion. Commenters make a number of often fascinating points. Leonardo Christov Moore and Marco Iacoboni take issue with the emotion-intellect distinction that appears to be operating at a number of points. Jesse Prinz stresses the moral importance of anger. Peter Singer links Bloom’s claim to an international movement. And there are a number of other great comments.
I haven’t read many of the comments on Bloom, but I am struck by the absence so far of something we sometimes mentioned on this blog. And that’s the effects of the lack of [emotion-based]empathy. Could empathy be necessary for an ability to identify those to whom we owe moral respect, for example? In thinking about Eric Schliiesser’s recent observations about responses to problems in our profession, I wonder if an incapacity for empathy, or a deliberate refusal to engage it is at the foundation. See, for example, this. WTF?
Some more details:
Bloom’s central claim:
… 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.
A distinction he takes to be very important:
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.
The central (and very Humean) problem he sees with empathy:
. 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.