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I liked what this book was getting at. I've always felt that appeals to empathy to fix the world's problems sounded flimsy, and so it was refreshing to hear someone make the case for why we shouldn't rely on our gut instincts for how we treat others. Empathy, as the author points out, is prejudiced and can't handle large numbers of people, and so it's wholly inadequate in the face of modern poverty, injustice, violence and hunger.
Great, so that's one chapter. The rest is downhill.
The chapter on why we should—and can—use reason instead of empathy is remarkably hand-wavy. There is so much research happening right now into how charitable work can be objectively assessed and improved (think Bill Gates), but instead of putting that forward, he makes an off-the-top-of-the-head argument that people are smart. He discusses the research into innate human biases and systemic irrationality, but he doesn't explain—actually, doesn't seem to grasp—how these biases can be managed with practical strategies (see: Moneyball). There was an important argument to made here. He didn't make it.
Bloom is right to not want to get lost in definitional arguments, and yet, in a practical sense, I do think he used empathy too narrowly. By requiring it to be the experience of emotions people see in others, he leaves out people understanding the emotions they see in others through past experience. When This American Life profiled black scholarship students failing out of university because they felt they didn't belong there, I vividly understood how terrible that was thanks to my own experience as a poor, rural white kid in a wealthy university. Empathy based on understanding, rather than raw emotion, doesn't suffer the shortcomings related to burnout Bloom lists, although it still faces many of the same challenges related to bias and innumeracy. If Bloom had included empathy in the sense of "understanding," it would have kept his core argument in-tact while making it more reasonable.
Honestly, you can basically skip this book if you've read Adam Smith (Theory of Moral Sentiments), Daniel Kahneman, Steven Pinker (Better Angels of our Nature), and Jonathan Haidt. He quotes them all extensively and doesn't add a great deal. All you need to know is that we should rely on numbers more for moral decisions than the emotional reactions we get from the suffering of others, because we find it easier to relate emotionally to people like ourselves, which leaves out most of the human race. Also we can't emotionally resonate with more than one person effectively, so we can too easily ignore the suffering of thousands.
There, saved you $20.
15 of 16 people found this review helpful
"Empathy is what makes us human; it's what makes us both subjects and objects of moral concern. Empathy betrays us only when we take it as a moral guide."
- Paul Bloom, Against Empathy
I'm a sucker for pop psychology or moral philosophy or moral politics books. Kinda my jam. I'm also a fan of books that flip certain general assumptions about what is an absolute good. I remember first reading a book called In Defense of Elitism years ago after my freshman year in college. It was a catchy title, and fairly interesting little treatise, and it made me think. Bloom's 'Against Empathy' fits into the same category as William A. Henry III defense of Elitist behavior. Neither is saying it is good to be bad. They are just saying we need to still examine our character heroes and assumptions about what really is a good.
Basically, Paul Bloom (a professor of psychology at Yale) is arguing that using empathy to make decisions about policy, etc., is perhaps a bad idea. He is specifically talking about the Bill Clinton "I feel your pain" kinda empathy, not the I can identify that you are in pain, cognitive psychology. Because of certain biases built into our brain, using empathy as a guide instead of rationality, rules, and reason typically lends to us making inferior social and political choices. We are replacing something that might be better done with our brain with an inferior tool, guided by our heart and our emotions. That is it. He has narrowed the definition of empathy down to "feeling what others feel" and makes sure to NOT conflate empathy with morality or compassion. His arguments are mainly valid, from my perspective. His title is clever. His prose and stories are so, so. I think the book is worth the time, but it wasn't great writing and a bit padded and repetitive. Otherwise, yeah, I feel it.
19 of 21 people found this review helpful