Denise Cummins Ph.D.

Good Thinking

The Claim: Empathy Makes the World Worse

Paul Bloom argues that empathy blinds you to long-term consequences

Posted Mar 21, 2016

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In his recent Atlantic animation, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom once again tries to explain to us why empathy leads us astray and makes us behave immorally.

He defines empathy as putting yourself in the shoes of another person and feeling their suffering. While he acknowledges that empathy is a powerful motivator for action, he also claims that it blinds you to the long-term consequences of your actions.

He likens acting out of empathy to Philosopher Peter Singer's "warm glow altruism": We behave in a prosocial way because it makes us feel good about ourselves. This, Bloom contends, is what makes us care more about freeing a baby who has fallen down a well than we do about the millions of nameless victims suffering in far-distant lands.

He urges us to instead be what Singer refers to as "effective altruists", people who think deeply about where their contributions are likely to have the greatest long-term impact.

Put aside for the moment that altruism and empathy are different things, and that altruism is just as likely to be motivated by principles as emotion. According to Bloom, when we act out of empathy, we are behaving selfishly instead of morally because we are just trying to make ourselves feel like we're good persons.

Or are we?

Empathy isn't a warm feeling

As anyone who experiences empathy knows, it is not a pleasant "warm glow" feeling. No, it usually hurts because we experience another person's suffering to some degree. And that feeling can motivate us to act, and act quickly without thought.

But it is a stretch to say that we act simply to trade that unpleasant ache for a warm fuzzy internal glow. When we act out of empathy, we act to end the suffering of another person, not simply to end our own. There is a much simpler way to do get rid of our own discomfort: Just look the other way.

No, the culprit here is not the motivational power of empathy. It is the "acting without thought" that is the problem. It is empathy that starts the engine, but it is our cognition that must drive the car.

Empathy is so powerful that it can shake us out of our complacency and cause us to help or harm others. To demonize empathy for its power is like demonizing penicillin for being powerful enough to both hurt and harm patients.

Empathy often makes the world better, not worse.

Contrary to Bloom's claim that empathy inevitably makes things worse in the long run, consider how empathy impacted people's choices during one of the darkest periods in human history: the holocaust.

Samuel Oliner, a Holocaust survivor, and his wife interviewed more than 700 European rescuers and non-rescuers to discover why ordinary people risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust while others stood passively by.

The Oliners found that the commonality among rescuers was empathy: Their ability to empathize, nourished by a diversity of friendships with people from other cultures. In fact, their research led them to dispute the common belief that teaching personal moral autonomy and independence of mind is the best defense against submission to authoritarian political regimes. Instead, they agree with H. J. Forbes, that independence of mind may "promise the philosopher but deliver the tyrant."

Similarly, Nell Van Rangelrooy and her husband sheltered at least half a dozen Jews during the Holocaust. When asked why she hid Jews despite the threats of the Nazis, she gave no lofty claim to principles, but instead said simply: "I felt sorry for them, and never regretted what we did."

In December 1940, on the eve of the Nazi destruction of the Jews, the writer John Dos Passos noted, "Our only hope will lie in the frail web of understanding of one person for the pain of another."

Reason doesn't preclude atrocity

Elsewhere, Bloom has famously argued that empathy must give way to reason if humanity is to survive. Yet as I pointed out elsewhere, pure reason, devoid of human empathy, has been used to justify some of the most heinous atrocities in human history. Genocide, for example, is typically justified by cogent argument.

In her insightful and cogent analysis of genocide, Dominique Maritz, an Editorial Assistant for e-International Relations at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, points out that Armenians, Jews, and Tutsi, were seen as worthless groups standing between a population and the realization of a perfect society. Therefore, in the mind of the “rational and enlightened” thinker, they were legitimate targets for extermination. In her own words,

"If a certain group is seen as standing between the population and this goal, it can be seen as “rational” and legitimate to rid oneself of that group. The chances of genocide occurring against an out-group that is perceived as standing between society and utopia is more likely during times of hardship, such as those of war and economic crises. Humans feel the need to blame an out-group and eliminate that threat to society. Being part of a genocidal squad may give them the desired feeling of security during those times of instability."

So the evidence pretty clearly shows that empathy and reason serve as checks on each other in moral decision-making. Unless these two are in balance, we too often topple into brutality.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins March 21, 2016

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, an elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

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