This is the first part in a project to review/respond to one book per week. By and large it will only include books I am reading or have read recently enough that they’re still stacked in a currently-reading-pile. Everything will be high level, mostly first impression, and hastily written.
Empathy is everywhere. I don’t just mean because there are people everywhere, but as a topic to be written about and the suggested solution du jour for management and policy failures.
Here’s a short list of headlines from a Google News search in March 2018:
- A $600 Billion Employee Engagement Problem Solved: Empathy - How Important Is Empathy To Successful Management? - The Key To Asking Better Sales Questions Is Empathy, According To Harvard's Mark Roberge - Why The Key To Civility Is Empathy - Learning empathy an antidote to a toxic workplace - Empathy: A Major Skillset In Demand For Leaders
It’s something I’ve bought into to some degree, as I’ve come to see empahty as a successful ingredient in effective communication. However Paul Bloom sees it as, to put it charitably, a dangerous distraction.
In “Against Empathy” Bloom isn’t ultimately against empathy per se so much as he is opposed to relying on empathy as a guidestone for making moral decisions. And in this I was – at least initially disappointed to find – he’s quite persuasive.
The core of the argument is that how we feel toward other people and react to these feelings isn’t necessarily the same and what’s right and wrong, and that our empathetic feelings can misguide us. This is driven in part by cognitive bias, including innumeracy and availability biases.
If you need to choose between helping one of two people, all things being equal you’ll likely choose to help the person with whom you empathize. Maybe it’s because there’s a connection of some kind that you feel, or their problem is more “real” to you. But that doesn’t mean that helping that person is a better moral choice. If we want to make good moral choices we need to weigh the moral outcomes first and then choose.
In this I think is some of the opposition to Bloom’s general thesis, because this presupposes you can weigh the relative moral problems and their outcomes in some kind of objective way. And while we probably can’t do this in a spreadsheet in any kind of satisfying way we do have a pretty good intuitive sense of how different moral outcomes stack up (e.g. saving 3 lives versus 1 life, saving a life versus holding a door for someone) such that in practice it’s not a significant problem.
Ultimately I didn’t find any cause to reject Bloom’s arguments. It has admittedly been a couple of months since I read the book and my bookmarklets are of less help in remembering what my thoughts than I’d hoped.
I still hold that empathy is a useful tool for engaging with other people, but with an emphasis on a “knowledge” form of empahty rather than the “feeling” form.
Originally published March 2018