Against Empathy

At Boston Review there is an interesting forum about empathy.

Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale, argues provocatively that “if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.” Most of the respondents find reasons to disagree with him, and so do I, but a more limited form of his argument makes sense to me - that empathy alone is not enough to guide us living moral lives. Cool rationality and warm but healthily self-differentiated benevolence can be just as important as feeling a ricochet of someone else’s suffering in your own gut.

I think Bloom shows the limitations of his particular conception of a moral life when he eventually admits that empathy in many domains might be a good thing, e.g. it’s good to feel joy when someone we love feels joy, it’s good to feel sad when someone we care about is suffering, etc., but that this has nothing to do with whether or not it is moral. He seems to limit moral decisions to actions about how we should distribute resources, make big policy and charity decisions, and ignore conceptions of ethics that talk about what makes for a life well lived. For those big policy decisions, I would agree that a good dose of dispassionate reason is called for. That’s also true when your child scrapes her knee and screams bloody murder - staying calm and not freaking out yourself is the best strategy. Bloom rightly talks about the risks of empathy burnout.

But as the response by Elizabeth Stoeker Bruenig points out, even the problem of burnout - that feeling too much of others suffering drains us to the point of being ineffective - might not be with an empathic way of life, but with a society that causes so much suffering and rewards those who are less emotionally sensitive to the plights of others:

"the success or failure of particular emotional states appears deeply dependent upon context. It may be wise to question the demands and structure of contemporary society before determining an individual’s appropriate level of emotional availability. True, the more distant and emotionally restrained person might be more functional given the requirements of our post-industrial market society, but one might also ask whether the shrinking niche for the emotionally unguarded reflects a loss for us all."