Paul Bloom recently wrote an interesting essay in the New Yorker (5/20/2013) called “The Baby in the Well,” in which he suggested that desires for a more empathic society are misguided, and that in fact, empathy is morally problematic. He writes:“Empathy is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.”
Bloom sets up an extreme argument in his essay, essentially asking, “what does empathy without reason or logic look like?” To me this is an unfair question, because it assumes that empathy and reason always operate in opposition to each other, with the implicit idea that being empathic is not very intelligent. The question is as problematic as asking its opposite, or “what does reason without empathy look like?” It is easy to imagine cold and calculating logic that can justify a whole slew of atrocities, and there are many historical cases of people who committed horrible acts that would have been impossible if they had experienced empathic emotions for their victims.
Moreover, several of the points that Bloom makes are refutable with empirical evidence drawn from current research on empathy.
1) The identifiable victim effect is the tendency to help single named individuals rather than unnamed group of people who may need equal or more help. Bloom argues that this is driven by empathic emotions. Is it? Researchers do indeed find that people who learn about single named individuals experience more emotional arousal than after learning about unnamed individuals or groups of people , however, the emotional arousal is actually personal distress (i.e. self-oriented feelings of being upset, worried, disturbed, troubled, etc), and not empathic concern (i.e. other-oriented feelings of compassion, tenderness, warmth, etc). So, people might be more likely to help single named individuals because seeing these cases makes them feel bad – but not bad for the victims. Future studies should help to clarify the specific role of empathic emotions in the identifiable victim effect.
2) Bloom writes that “the empathetic reflex can lead us astray,” using two case studies as evidence. One case is that of warlords receiving money from international relief agencies. Is this really caused by an empathetic reflex? We would need more details to make this conclusion, but there are likely many other factors at play here. Another case is that of parents in India mutilating their children to make them more effective beggars. Just because parents do this does not mean it is effective, or that empathy would cause people to mindlessly throw their money at these unfortunate children. Indeed, there is some research evidence suggesting that when empathic emotions are engaged, people are more likely to consider the future consequences to recipients, and less likely to help others if doing so might have a long-term harm to recipients.
3) Bloom also argues that empathy can “drive an appetite for retribution.” First, I know of no research to support the idea that empathy is associated with increased aggression against those who harm loved ones of empathic people. But studies should be conducted to see if this is the case. There are many cases in which this seems like a real possibility. For example, if empathy is evolved to ensure the survival of one’s offspring, then empathic emotions for one’s children could lead to a strong protective urge that fends off threatening others. In other words, it is possible that high empathy for some people (e.g. close others, ingroup members) might lead to lower empathy for other people (e.g. threatening strangers, outgroup members). Yet so far, the research on this topic is undeveloped , with the current state of the research finding that on average, empathy is associated with lower aggressiveness in general .
Second, Bloom cites a study by Jonathan Baron & Ilana Ritov that asked participants how a company should be punished for producing a vaccine that caused the death of a child. Half of the participants were told that that a high fine would make the company develop a better vaccine, and the other half were told that a high fine would cause the company to stop making the vaccine, and thus cause even more child deaths. The study found that this makes no difference to most people – they just want the company to pay a big fine. This is an interesting study, but it is unclear if this outcome is indeed caused by empathy. More evidence is needed to support the specific causal role of empathy here.
4) Bloom argues that in the case of climate change, “the limits of empathy are especially stark here.” He says that the problem is that identifiable victims abound who will be harmed by higher costs of carbon dioxide emissions and the like, yet there are millions of unknown people who will suffer many future consequences but remain “pale statistical abstractions.” Again, this is a problem of reasoning, and not necessarily of empathy. Empathy can motivate a variety of pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors [5,6,7,8,9], and low empathy traits such as narcissistic entitlement are associated with exploitative approaches to natural resources . Given this, it is possible that empathy may actually help us to face impending challenges associated with climate change.
5) Near the end of his essay Bloom suggests that “a reasoned, even counter-empathetic analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences is a better guide to planning for the future than the gut wrench of empathy.” Mark Wilhelm and Rene Bekkers have indeed found that when people have a strong belief in the moral obligation to care for others, they are more likely to help others . Much research suggests that the personality trait empathy is associated with more prosocial behaviors, and their research replicated these prior findings. However, they found that this relationship was really explained by the moral principle of care: people who score higher in dispositional empathic concern also have a greater moral principle to care, and this is why they are more likely to help others. So, moral obligation does play a large role in helping, but that moral obligation is fueled by empathic concern. In other words, empathic concern and moral obligation go hand in hand, making a “counter-empathetic analysis of moral obligation” improbable.
Overall, I agree that there are times when empathy, like anything else, can have a down side. There are excellent reviews on this topic by Dan Batson [12,13]. But this is a different argument than saying that empathy operates without logic. Bloom tempers his statements by the end, saying “some spark of fellow-feeling is needed to convert intelligence into action,” and here we are in agreement. Yet he clearly leans more toward reason than empathy, as his concluding statement suggests: “But empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.” I see both empathy and reason as equally necessary, and believe that they often work together to make optimal moral decisions. Future research can help to clarify the role of empathy and reason in moral decision making.
Is there evidence that “empathy betrays us when we take it as a moral guide?” Indeed, it depends on which aspects of morality are considered. Empathy helps to motivate moral actions such as sharing one’s time and money with less fortunate others . Most people can agree that these are moral responses. But there are many different principles of morality, and they sometimes conflict. For example, research suggests that at times empathy can be at odds with another moral principle: that of fairness or justice. Dan Batson, for example, has found that participants who are induced to feel empathy for a terminally ill child are more likely to move her off a waiting list and into immediate treatment—which means that others on the waiting list do not get the treatment they need. This demonstrates that at times, empathic feelings can motivate partiality . But clearly there remain many benefits to empathy that should lead us to a more balanced approach in discussions about it. Otherwise we are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water.
 Kogut, T., & Ritov, I. (2005). The “identified victim” effect: An identified group, or just a single individual? Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 18(3), 157-167.
 Sibicky, M. E., Schroeder, D. A., & Dovidio, J. F. (1995). Empathy and Helping: Considering the Consequences of Intervention. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 16(4), 435-453.
 Miller, P. A., & Eisenberg, N. (1988). The relation of empathy to aggressive and externalizing/antisocial behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 103(3), 324.
 Allen, J. B., & Ferrand, J. L. (1999). Environmental Locus of Control, Sympathy, and Proenvironmental Behavior A Test of Geller’s Actively Caring Hypothesis. Environment and behavior, 31(3), 338-353.
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 Campbell, W. K., Bonacci, A. M., Shelton, J., Exline, J. J., & Bushman, B. J. (2004). Psychological Entitlement: Interpersonal Consequences and Validation of a Self-Report Measure. Journal of Personality Assessment, 83(1), 29-45.
 Wilhelm, M. O., & Bekkers, R. (2010). Helping behavior, dispositional empathic concern, and the principle of care. Social Psychology Quarterly, 73(1), 11-32.
 Batson, C. D., Ahmad, N., & Stocks, E. (2004). Benefits and liabilities of empathy-induced altruism. The social psychology of good and evil, 359-385.
 Batson, C. D. (2012). Benefits (Chapter 7). Liabilities (Chapter 8). Altruism in humans, Oxford University Press.
 Batson, C. D., Klein, T. R., Highberger, L., & Shaw, L. L. (1995). Immorality from empathy-induced altruism: When compassion and justice conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(6), 1042.