‘Why I believe empathy is dangerous’

A good cause? More than three quarters of Britons donate to charity in a typical month.
by Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom is a Canadian American professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. His research specialises in how people understand the physical and social world, focussing on language, morality, religion, fiction and art. Bloom has written eight critically acclaimed books on psychology.

We are always told to ‘put ourselves in other people’s shoes’. But in a new book, Paul Bloom attacks empathy, saying that it clouds judgment and makes for a crueller, less rational world.

It is often said the rich don’t make enough effort to appreciate what it is like to be poor and if they did we would have more equality and social justice. It’s said that whites do not have enough empathy for blacks and that men do not have enough empathy for women. There are many who maintain that if certain politicians had more empathy, they wouldn’t be endorsing such rotten policies. I used to believe this as well.

Empathy has its merits. It can be a great source of pleasure, involved in art, fiction and sports. And it can be a valuable aspect of intimate relationships. But it is a poor moral guide. It grounds foolish judgments and often motivates indifference and cruelty. It can lead to irrational and unfair political decisions. It makes the world worse.

The main problem with empathy is that it works like a spotlight, highlighting certain people in the here and now, making their suffering salient to you. This can sometimes be a good thing. Indeed, one of the best arguments in favour of empathy is that it makes you kinder to the person you are empathising with.

Empathy is a poor moral guide. It grounds foolish judgments and often motivates indifference and cruelty.

So if the world were a simple place, where the only difficulties one had to deal with involved a single person in some sort of immediate distress, and where helping that person had positive effects, the case for empathy would be solid.

But the world is not simple. One problem is that empathy is innumerate, favouring the one over the many. In one series of studies, psychologists asked people how much money they would give to help develop a drug that would save the life of one child and asked others how much they would give to save eight children. People would give roughly the same in both cases. But when a third group of subjects was told the child’s name and shown her picture, the donations shot up . All of these laboratory effects can be seen as manifestations of what has been called ‘the identifiable victim effect’.

Consider charity and foreign aid. The philosopher Peter Singer points out that many people are ‘warm glow’ givers. They give small amounts to multiple charities, motivated to spread their money around because each donation gives a little jolt of pleasure, like plucking small treats from a bountiful table of desserts. Their choices are driven not by a rational assessment of what can do the most good, but by the lure of stories and pictures of adorable animals and children.

This does not always lead to positive results. There is a growing consensus that a lot of foreign aid has a negative effect. Many worry that the kindhearted intervention of affluent westerners has made life worse for millions of people.

Part of the problem is that foreign aid decreases the incentives for long-term economic development in the areas that would most benefit from this. Food aid can put local farmers and markets out of business. Then there is the concern that food aid and medical care for those involved in combat can actually end up killing more people than it saves.

Also, the world contains unscrupulous people who strategically exploit our empathy for bad ends. For instance, the feelings that many have for needy children motivate other individuals to establish a steady supply and so there are orphanages that pay or coerce poor parents to give up their children.

If you want the pleasure of personal contact, go ahead and give something to a begging child, perhaps feeling a little buzz when your hands touch. If you actually want to make people’s lives better, do something different.

This is an extract from Paul Bloom’s article in The Guardian. His book is called Against Empathy: the Case for Rational Compassion.

You Decide

  1. Do you agree with Paul Bloom that empathy is dangerous?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have £100 to give away to charity. Write 500 words on how you would use it.

Word Watch

The identifiable victim effect
This effect was famously epitomised by Joseph Stalin, who once said: ‘A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.’
Foreign aid
According to OECD (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) figures for 2015, the highest spending on development aid was by the USA ($31.08bn) and second the UK ($18.70bn). But as a percentage of gross national income these figures equate to UK 0.71% and USA 0.17%, against the UN target of 0.7%. (Top of the list by this measure was Sweden with 1.4% or $7.09bn.)
Peter Singer
An Australian moral philosopher, Singer is at the forefront of the utilitarian movement and a committed secularist.

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