Empathy: pro and con

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.

10 thoughts on “Empathy: pro and con

  1. I’ve always thought another limitation of empathy is that there are certain sorts of experiences that people can’t share, simply because they lack the relevant embodiment and/or social position. I remember attending a conference session once where the presenter was arguing that non-marginalized folks could fight sexism, racism, et al. through empathy, and thinking it was an odd sort of line of reasoning. There are a lot of cases where maybe empathy isn’t the proper route, but instead one should recognize one’s inability to empathize and then try to create spaces where other people can articulate their own experiences.

  2. I’m with Matt here though I think part of this might be the general confusion between empathy, contagion, and sympathy. I’ve always understood contagion to be a psychological phenomenon (like yawning when someone else yawns) but empathy was it’s normatively loaded cousin.

    In any case, why does Bloom seem to be rehashing the problems that took Hume from 1st order to sympathy to the ideal observer? I didn’t realize the 1st order crowd had come back.

  3. Matt: As I understand the research about getting people to share their own stories because others may not be able to empathize. There are clearly cases where empathy can seriously fail us if we haven’t had the relevant experiences. E.g., for an ordinary example, take the case of someone whose house has been broken into. This happened to an acquaintance of mine; the thieves took her gold necklaces, but otherwise left the place ok. She felt she had to move houses. I’ve seen enough of this reaction to having one’s house violated to not be surprised, but it’s not something I easily share. (I assume that will change the minute someone does rob me.)

    There has been quite a movement to get students of color to share there experiences with white kids. Apparently, the white kids find these sharing very helpful. The people of color? When researchers finally realized that there might be another important perspective, they started to ask the POC’S. They did not find these experiences very helpful, because they ended up subject to the same cliches, though friendlier versions.

    I’ve forgotten just who did all the research. I think John Dovidio at Yale was pushing the idea that sharing would make a big difference, and I think he also discovered that it was not at all the help that it seemed. He’s at Yale, and if you want, you could go through his publications and try to find it all.

  4. Rj, Nomy Arpaly takes herself to be disagreeing with Bloom on the following:

    But, Bloom’s research notwithstanding, some things often called empathy are truly invaluable. I am talking about the ability to imagine another person’s life and the ability to accept evidence of another person’s suffering even when one’s imagination fails. While having these abilities cannot in itself make a person good, even the best of us will do bad things if we do not have at least one of them.

    I’m not sure he wouldn’t agree. I should look at his reply. One problem is that he’s for compassion, and that might get him what NA thinks he needs.

  5. I think there is another way of thinking of empathy especially as a teaching tool regarding social justice issues. Rather than it being an imaginative reasoning of another’s situation – it can be a process of imagining how you are constructed in the eyes of another. Lugones’ work as well as black feminist thought has helped me here. In this way empathy is self reflection via the effects of the matrix of domination. This would mean that those with privilege should consider how their experiences, sense of self, etc are experienced by those without privilege. I would add that how it ‘feels’ both to become aware of one’s own privilege as well as seeing how one has (tacitly) played a role in maintaining privilege should also be a component in this imagining. This to me goes beyond story telling to a reciprocal reflection of how our sense of self is, in part, shaped within an oppressive system.

  6. And then there is the problem of empathy being emotionally-rooted. Certain people, for example, have difficulty experiencing emotions and thus also have equal difficulty expressing or understanding empathy. One group with this challenge would be people falling in the Autism Spectrum. For them, perhaps an intellectually-based empathy would be easier to grasp, and help them identify right and wrong (morally speaking).

  7. Lina, interesting and important.
    Matt: thanks.
    Jeanne B: I think Bloom in effect makes this point. It is important that lacking emotional empathy does not mean one cannot be moral.

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