Paul Bloom is a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive
Science at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults
understand the physical and social world, with special focus on language,
morality, religion, fiction, and art.
"I am interested in the development
and nature of our common-sense understanding of ourselves and other people...
My students and I are becoming interested in certain fundamental questions
within moral psychology."
"Researchers have long been interested in the relationship between feeling
what you believe others feel—often described as empathy—and caring about the
welfare of others—often described as compassion or concern. Many propose that
empathy is a prerequisite for concern and is therefore the ultimate motivator
of prosocial actions. To assess this hypothesis, the authors developed the
Empathy Index, which consists of 2 novel scales, and explored their
relationship to a measure of concern as well as to measures of cooperative and
altruistic behavior. A series of factor analyses reveal that empathy and
concern consistently load on different factors. Furthermore, they show that
empathy and concern motivate different behaviors: concern for others is a
uniquely positive predictor of prosocial action whereas empathy is either not
predictive or negatively predictive of prosocial actions. Together these
studies suggest that empathy and concern are psychologically distinct and
empathy plays a more limited role in our moral lives than many believe."
"Such are the paradoxes of empathy. The power of
this faculty has something to do with its ability to bring our moral
concern into a laser pointer of focussed attention. If a planet of
billions is to survive, however, we'll need to take
into consideration the welfare of people not yet harmed—and, even more,
of people not yet born. They have no names, faces, or stories to grip
our conscience or stir our fellow-feeling. Their prospects call, rather,
for deliberation and calculation. Our hearts will always go out to the
baby in the well; it’s a measure of our humanity. But empathy will have
to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future."
In my article in
the magazine this week, I made the case against empathy. Our capacity to
put ourselves in the shoes of others—to feel their pain, to make their
goals our own—might well be essential for intimate relationships. Nobody
would deny that parents should feel empathy toward their children, or
that romantic love requires the bond that empathy provides. But when we
use empathy as a guide to policy, it often takes us in irrational and
Opening the Debate Paul Bloom: Most people see
the benefits of empathy as too obvious to require justification.
This is a mistake.
"When asked what I am working on, I often say I am writing
a book about empathy. People tend to smile and nod, and then I
add, “I’m against it.” This usually gets an uncomfortable
This reaction surprised me at first, but I’ve come to realize
that taking a position against empathy is like announcing that
you hate kittens—a statement so outlandish it can only be a
joke. And so I’ve learned to clarify, to explain that I am not
against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good
neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better
place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be
good and do good, empathy is a poor guide."
Responsive by Peter Singer, Jack W. Berry, Lynn E. O'Connor,
Marianne LaFrance, Nomy Arpaly, Christine Montross, Barbara H.
Fried, Leslie Jamison, Leonardo Christov-Moore, Marco
Iacoboni, Simon Baron-Cohen, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Sam
Harris, Jesse Prinz
Facilitating a Dialog about the Articles
Edwin Rutsch - Empathizing With Paul Bloom Director: Center for Building a Culture of Empathy After reading Paul's articles, the first thing I did was to
email him and ask if I could interview and empathize with him
and his point of view about empathy. I'm coming from a very
different position than he is, instead of wanting to limit
empathy, I feel we need to expand it and build a global culture
of empathy. We need to nurture, deepen and strengthen empathy in
ourselves, in our family, with friends, colleagues,
neighborhoods, communities, institutions and all over the world.
For me, the 'means are the ends', so it's important to empathize
with people who denigrate or are against empathy and to really
deeply listen to and hear their concerns about it.
I set an
email to Paul
to see if he would be willing to
do an interview and talk about his article?
interviews look terrific, and I'd love to participate -- but now is a
particularly hectic time. Can we revisit this in a couple of months?”
Thanks for the quick reply. I’m available to do the interview/dialog
whenever you have time and space for it. Let me know some dates and
times that work for you and we can get it on the calendar. We use
Google hangouts, so it can be done at any time from any computer with
I would like to do the interview as soon as possible to follow up on
your article. Since your article just came out, an interview about it
would be timely, ‘striking while the iron is hot’, so to speak. Since
I come from the intention that we need to build an empathic culture, I
think it would be very interesting and fruitful to explore and dialog
about the problems you see with empathy. I’d like to ‘empathize’ with
your point of view.
Perhaps we could also have some Panel or ‘Empathy Circle’
discussions with others in the field about your article. I have
interviews lined up this week with Marco Iacoboni
http://j.mp/YhPx30 and Helen
Reiss http://j.mp/12VRhQh to
respond to the article. I’ve also just talked with George Lakoff
http://j.mp/MsaHVz about it and
he may do an interview as well.. I’ll also be lining up others. Would
you be willing to do a group video call as well with them? Can you
think of other people who you think would be good to invite to such a
call? I look forward to hearing from you. Warmly, Edwin
It sounds great, Edwin, and I appreciate the desire to
do this quickly. But I'm afraid the timing just doesn't work out on my
end: I'm leaving for London in a couple of days, and when I get back,
I have various family obligations that'll keep me busy. Sorry to
disappoint, but, again, thanks for reaching out to me.
Thanks for the kind
reply and update Paul, Wishing you a good trip to London, I’ll contact you in a couple of
months then - that would be in July. I am available at any time before if the occasion arises.. Very much
looking forward to dialoging, empathizing and reasoning with you. Warmly, Edwin
Dear Paul, I hope you had a good trip to London and have had time for your family
obligations. I wanted to follow up on doing an empathic interview with you on your
‘Case Against Empathy’ article. I’d like to see if we can line up a
time and date for that. I’ve done some other discussions around the issues you raise, you can
see them here. There’s also other articles related to your article.
http://j.mp/10EIPBU I’m looking forward to talking with you.
I received an email back from Paul that he'd rather I not post the
contents of his current and future email conversations to the web since he writes
more causally in his emails. So I'm not posting his reply to the last
He also said, he didn't have time to do an interview. When I
interviewed Michael Slote (see below) about his response to the
article, he said, 'I don't think Paul will really do an interview with
you'. While I was optimistic, it looks like Michael was right.
My invitation to dialog and for me to empathize with Paul is an open
invitation. I hope he will find time sometime in the future.
I feel disappointed that you don’t want to dialog with me about your
article. I was looking forward to having the opportunity to empathize
with you and more deeply understand where you are coming from around
your criticisms and opposition to empathy. I’ll just mention I have an
open invitation to you to have a discussion about your work and
criticisms of empathy. Since I’m looking at how we can create a more
empathic global culture, I like to understand people’s concerns and
objections to that. I also feel that an empathic and informed
discussion could assist the public in better understanding the nature
I continue to try and foster an dialog around the issues, ideas, needs
and values you raised in your articles. Some people I’ve talked to
include people in academia: Frans de Waal, Daniel Batson, George
Lakoff, Helen Riess, Sara Konrath, Jonathan Baron, Ilana Ritov, Daryl
Cameron, Lou Agosta, etc. I have been talking with others you
referenced in the article as well. I have some more interviews lined
You did mention the Empathy Circle dialog and response from Alice. It
sounds like you didn’t feel supported, empathized with or understood
by Alice and others in the circle. I’m sure Alice and others would be
glad to talk directly with you online. I’d be glad to host any sort of
an Empathy Circle dialog with anyone you’d like to invite. I’ve hosted
Empathy Circles with Democrats and Republicans around how they could
create more empathy together. Goodness knows politics sure needs more
mutual understanding. The Empathy Circle uses reflective listening so
each person feels heard to their satisfaction before we move on to the
next person. See http://j.mp/14I25BW
In the dialogs I’ve hosted, there has been a wide variety of agreement
and disagreement with your article and ideas. I invite you to do a
Empathy Circle panel discussion with some of the people I’ve
mentioned. I’m sure they would be glad to dialog with you. It would
also be good to talk with people who have a deeper understanding of
empathy, like George Lakoff, Helen Reiss, etc. Perhaps you could
invite Steven Pinker to a panel? I did invite Steven to do a dialog on
empathy but he declined due to a heavy schedule..
I am a bit baffled why the people who are against empathy don’t seem
to want to do dialog/interviews about it with me and be empathized
with. I would think they would be glad to have an informed forum to
express and dialog about their views. For example;
* You referenced
Jesse Prinz and
his arguments against empathy and he doesn’t respond to requests to
talk about his work. (postscript, I did an interview with
Jesse Prinz. Also see below)
* Jan Slaby, “Against Empathy:
Critical Theory and the Social Brain“ “I'm sorry, I have to cancel the interview. I don't feel like speaking
extensively about empathy, as my work on the topic is so far rather
sketchy and general, and I like to do more research to make my views
firmer before I go online with an extensive q&a on the matter. I
have to postpone this for the time being, I hope you understand.
very best, Jan”
Also, In terms
of posting our email conversation to my web page, are you requesting I
remove the ones I posted, or just not post the new ones? I can remove
the previous ones if that is important to you. As you requested, I
will not post the last one or future ones without your ok..
I do hope you will reconsider and do a discussion with me and/or do an
Empathy Circle with a wider panel of informed experts in the field. I
do think it would contribute to the general discussion and
understanding by the public about the nature of empathy. I would
certainly enjoy it and find it helpful.
Thanks for taking the time for this email discussion. Warmly, Edwin
EmpathyWorks - Against Empathy?
"Whether or not you agree with Bloom's arguments, the post is worth
reading, as are the many insightful and often brilliant responses
written by a broad spectrum of commentators, including: Marco
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.
“Edwin, I agree, Paul Bloom is using an outdated definition of empathy and
I would be willing to talk with you this Sunday late afternoon about it. I
find that people who don't know the meaning of the word are soiling our
work in the minds of the public. We have neuroscience to back up our
definitions of empathy that need to be aired.
----- Dear Edwin,
It was a pleasure to talk with you again, and thank you for holding
the empathy community together. Bloom's article highlights the need
to educate the public about the neuroscience of empathy and I hope
my Huff Post will be published, where I begin that conversation.
While Bloom and David Brooks are singing a different tune, they do
give us the opportunity to speak up and disseminate our thinking.
They have a rough road ahead if they think they can convince lay
people that empathy is bad, but I worry more about educators trying
to establish empathy training into institutions and those
institutions using arguments like Bloom's due to a lack of precise
Paul Bloom, in his article on the irrational
consequences of empathy, suggests that empathy is devoid of reason.
Neuroscientific research has identified several distinct brain regions
that are activated when humans are confronted with the painful experience
of others. Empathy is a complex capacity that includes cognitive,
emotional, moral and behavioral processes, not only to feel another’s pain
but to imagine how one could alleviate his suffering and take rational
steps to help that person.
Just as the Cartesian notion that thinking, not feeling,
defines being human is out of date, Bloom’s assertion that empathy is only
about feeling the pain of others is becoming obsolete. Our civilization
should be encouraged toward empathy for the evident benefits it affords
George Lakoff is a cognitive
linguist and professor of linguistics at the University of California,
I’m doing some interviews in response to this New Yorker article,...
Would you be willing to talk about your response? Edwin
Yes, but I'd have to think it through. Bloom's piece
is full of mistakes and half-truths. Remember Don't Think of an
Elephant. You can't let his characterization structure the
discussion or you lose automatically.
The short answer. The mirror neuron circuitry (linking pre-motor,
parietal, pre-frontal, amygdala, and insula at least) allows us
immediate strong empathy and the prefrontal circuitry (super-mirror
neurons) allows for judgment as to when to turn it off. The fact
that the brain uses the same circuitry for imagining seeing and
doing as it uses for actual seeing and doing creates imagined
empathy, that is, extended empathy, that goes beyond direct empathy.
It is extended empathy that is crucial here and
that Obama has discussed as the basis of democracy (see The Little
Blue Book). It is extended empathy that allows us to empathizes with
the women in the collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh. Bloom only
discusses direct empathy but it is extended empathy that he makes
use of when he discusses policies that are needed to help people
beyond the reach of direct empathy.
But, we know from neuroscience, that extended empathy
derives from and requires direct empathy. He should be arguing for
the development of the capacity for extended empathy. We need more
empathy development, not less.
To Edwin, Obviously empathy is not universally good. It is not even
defined as a positive capacity, since its definition has to do with
adopting the emotional state of others, understanding their situation,
which are capacities that may be used for negative or exploitative
purposes. I am on board with Bloom that pure empathy is not going to save
the world, and that it may even be dangerous given the bias that's built
into empathy, a bias for the own group and for people similar to us.
am surprised by his suggestion that we need to separate empathy and
rationality, as if this is even possible. This is built upon the
traditional dichotomy in Western thought between emotion & reason. Most
psychological science has now debunked this dichotomy.
First, emotions are quite intelligent, since they rest
on appraisal mechanisms that require a cognitive evaluation of the
situation we are in.
Second, rationality could not even exist without
emotions, as there would be no reason to think about anything if we were
not emotionally interested. Pure reason is pure fiction. Read Damasio,
read Hume. Bloom follows a very Cartesian line of thought.
If we think about what kind of society we'd like to live
in, automatically we will bring emotions and empty into the picture. We
may rationally decide that slavery is not acceptable, that it undermines
society, that it denies human rights, yet Lincoln mentioned explicitly in
his correspondence that he was seriously bothered by the sight of slaves
when he visited the south and that this was part of his motivation to
Emotions seep into every rational decision we make, and for
Bloom to suggest that it could be otherwise is naive. Yet, if his point is
that some emotions and some forms of empathy can be counterproductive, I
agree and the difference of opinion is perhaps not as great as it may
Empathy is a capacity that has evolved over the last 200 million years in
the mammals, it can't be as bad as Bloom makes it seem.
Author, From Detached Concern to Empathy,
Associate Professor of BIoethics at UC Berkeley, School of Public
"In a recent New Yorker piece, Paul Bloom argues that empathy is the
wrong stance for public morality, as in promoting public health,
because it focuses our attention on the individuals we readily
empathize with -- such as the baby stuck in a well -- and blinds us to
the unmet needs of the many whose problems are harder to imagine.
Bloom makes a number of valid points. But, as Michael Zakaras points
out, Bloom seems to miss the cognitive aspects of empathy, and thus
misses the crucial role that empathy must play in ethical decisions.
Zakaras, though, goes too far in defending empathy as the basis of a
coherent moral vision. Both authors ignore the bigger problem we face
in policy decisions, which is that we seem to lack a capacity to bring
our distinct moral perspectives -- empathy, justice, efficiency --
into one coherent view. This is a limitation of reason, not of
"An essay in this week’sNew
that we don't have enough empathy to go around. But new research says
we can keep renewing and expanding our feeling for others.Is empathy a limited resource, easily depleted
and restricted to those closest to us? That’s the argument
psychologist Paul Bloom makes in an essay for this week’sNew
case against empathy.” He admits that
empathy can do a lot of good: decades of research show that feeling
empathy can lead us to be more caring, forgiving, and altruistic.
But according to Bloom, empathy also can do a lot of bad. It’s an
untrustworthy moral compass because it is “parochial, narrow-minded,
and innumerate.” Empathy seems tuned to only one frequency, that of a
single identifiable victim, with whom we feel some personal
connection. According to Bloom, these biases make empathy ill-suited
to help us confront crises like natural disasters, genocides, and
climate change. Bloom concludes, “Empathy will have to yield to reason
if humanity is to have a future.
Denise Dellarosa Cummins is a retired Adjunct Professor of
Psychology and Philosophy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her
research interests include the evolution and development of higher
cognition in artificial and biological systems. Her experimental
investigations focus on Causal Cognition, Social Cognition, and Moral
She writes, "To most of us, the idea that empathy is a good thing is a no
brainer. The more we empathize with the plight of others, the more ethical
and moral we behave towards them. Yet a number of psychologists and
philosophers reject this view....
believe empathy leads to bad moral judgments and bad social policy... The
desire to censure empathy stems from the belief that empathy and other
emotions necessarily lead to anarchy and retributive justice, while reason
necessarily leads to order and good judgment. Yet sufficient evidence from
the annals of human history plainly shows that reason, untempered by
empathy, is just as likely to lead to tyranny and genocide as it is to
lead to good judgment. When compassion and reason are decoupled, judgment
is not improved. Instead, the door is opened to inhumane practices."
Maureen O'Hara is Professor in the Psychology Department at National
University, La Jolla, CA and President Emerita of Saybrook Graduate
School, San Francisco. She was a coworker with
Hi Maureen, Have you seen these articles by Paul Bloom I’m wondering what your
take on them is? Edwin ===============
Here's what I wrote to the friend who sent me the
piece (I am in Brazil). Oh dear. Where to start. This is so full of straw man arguments it
is really not worth taking on. Ayn Rand would love it.
1st. He does not define what he is talking about. Is he talking
Also, discussing "empathy"
in isolation is a reductionist trick that makes no sense. You can't
separate it out like a "thing' and then argue that it needs other
'things' like reason and judgment. .
2. He makes comments like: "Empathy has some unfortunate features—it
is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best
when we’re smart enough not to rely on it." Though he uses
psychological experiments to make his case, he ignores work such as
de Waal's or Martha Nussbaum's that suggest the opposite--that
we make better decisions and our moral reasoning is sounder when we
are linked emotionally through empathy.
3. He says: "It is impossible to empathize with 7 billion strangers".
Maybe true for him but again no data. How about Gandhi, MLK,
Jesus, Chris Stout and the hundreds of thousands of groups world
wide who empathize with "humanity" and care enough about the
future to dedicate their lives to "strangers" .?
What about you?
...There's also the question of if empathy is
good, bad, or neutral. Bloom has support from De Waal and Dan Batson, etc.
that empathy can be used for "good or bad". (They seem to disagree with
him on the separation of empathy and reason). I see empathy as a positive
trait and we have levels of empathy in us that can increase or decrease.
The empathy part is positive, and it's the areas
of our awareness that don't have empathy that are the problem. Their
point, to me, would be like, breathing can be used for good or bad.. I.e.
A murderer is breathing so their breathing is used for bad. This reasoning
could be extended to the idea that, a murder is 'living' so life can be
used for good or bad. It doesn't make sense to me. To me they are saying
empathy can be used for being unempathic. I'd say there are other factors,
fear, alienation, indifference, etc. that are the cause of the 'bad'. I'm
also think that good and bad, could be replaced with empathic (good) and
unempathic (bad-evil) and a variable scale in between. Simon Baron-Cohen
writes about this as well.
People Referenced in the Article Respond
Here are some comments and responses by people that were directly
mentioned or referenced in the article. I invited them into the dialog
and asked them to share their perspective. I tried to empathize with and
understand their points of view.
"Moral judgment entails more than putting oneself in another’s shoes.
As the philosopher Jesse Prinz points out, some acts that we
easily recognize as wrong, such as shoplifting or tax evasion, have no
identifiable victim. And plenty of good deeds—disciplining a child for
dangerous behavior, enforcing a fair and impartial procedure for
determining who should get an organ transplant, despite the suffering
of those low on the list—require us to put our empathy to one side.
Eight deaths are worse than one, even if you know the name of the one;
humanitarian aid can, if poorly targeted, be counterproductive; the
threat posed by climate change warrants the sacrifices entailed by
efforts to ameliorate it." Paul Bloom
is Distinguished Professor at City University of New York, Graduate
Center. He says "I work primarily in the philosophy of psychology,
broadly construed. I am interested in how the mind works. I think
philosophical accounts of the mental can be fruitfully informed by
findings from psychology, the neurosciences, anthropology, and related
fields. My theoretical convictions are unabashedly empiricist. I hope to
resuscitate core claims of British Empiricism against the backdrop of
contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive science."
In this engaging
interview-dialog, Edwin Rutsch empathizes with Jesse about the problems
he sees with empathy and replies to some of the criticisms. Jesses
says, "empathy is prone to biases that render it potentially harmful.
Another construct—concern—fares somewhat better, but it is also of
limited use. I argue that, instead of empathy, moral judgments involve
emotions such as anger, disgust, guilt, and admiration. These, not
empathy, provide the sentimental foundation for morality."
Paul asks, why do people respond to
some misfortunes and not to others?
He points to a study by Paul
Slovic who says there was more care and
concern about one person
the suffering masses in Darfur.
"The immense power of empathy has been
demonstrated again and again. It is why Americans were
rivetted by the fate of Natalee Holloway, the teen-ager who
went missing in Aruba, in 2005. It’s why, in the wake of
widely reported tragedies and disasters—the tsunami of 2004,
Hurricane Katrina the year after, or Sandy last year—people
gave time, money, and even blood. It’s why, last December,
when twenty children were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary
School, in Newtown, Connecticut, there was a widespread sense
of grief, and an intense desire to help. Last month, of
course, saw a similar outpouring of support for the victims of
the Boston Marathon bombing. Last month, of course, saw a
similar outpouring of support for the victims of the Boston
Marathon bombing. Why do people respond to these misfortunes
and not to others?
The psychologist Paul Slovicpoints out that, when Holloway disappeared, the story of her
plight took up far more television time than the concurrent
genocide in Darfur. Each day, more than ten times the number
of people who died in Hurricane Katrina die because of
preventable diseases, and more than thirteen times as many
perish from malnutrition. There is, of course, the
attention-getting power of new events.
Just as we can come to ignore the hum of traffic, we become
oblivious of problems that seem unrelenting, like the
starvation of children in Africa—or homicide in the United
(In dialog with Edwin Rutsch).
Here I chat with Paul Slovic about his response.
Paul is a professor of psychology
at the University of Oregon and studies judgment and decision
processes with an emphasis on decision making under conditions of
The article claims that Empathy leads to retribution.
It cites a study by Jonathan Baron and Ilana
Ritov as support of this point.
"On many issues, empathy can pull us in the wrong direction.
But the appetite for retribution is typically indifferent to long-term
consequences. In one study, conducted by
Jonathan Baron and Ilana Ritov,
people were asked how best to punish a company for producing a vaccine that
caused the death of a child.
Some were told that a higher fine would
make the company work harder to manufacture a safer product; others were
told that a higher fine would discourage the company from making the
vaccine, and since there were no acceptable alternatives on the market the
punishment would lead to more deaths. Most people didn’t care; they wanted
the company fined heavily, whatever the consequence."
Unempathic. The problems mentioned are not caused by empathy but by
the unempathic response of retribution. The justice system is based on
judgment and retribution and is low on empathy. The empathic approach is
to listen to all parties involved in the problem and to facilitate all the
parties empathizing, dialoging, listening, and understanding each other
and taking empathic action together.
Unempathic. To be biased against one person over another is to be
not fully empathic. Empathizing with one person and not another is
a lack of empathy for all people. So the problem
is with the unempathic state of bias, not with empathy. The empathy
needs to be extended to everyone as well as supporting others to
empathize with each other.
What is the Basis for
Public Policy. What should be the basis for public policy? If
public policy makers are not empathizing with the aspirations, values needs of the citizens, then
what? Should the basis for policy be the top down patronizing authoritarian
dictates of the leader who knows better than everyone else about what's good
for them? Or is it to empathize with the hopes, aspirations, values and
needs of the citizens, (or somewhere along that continuum?). Policies need to be geared
towards fostering greater and deeper empathy between people.]
Jonathan Baron, Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania." I
study how people think about moral questions, especially questions about
Current topics of interest are the nature of individual differences in
reflective and intuitive thinking, and the possible existence of naïve
theories of the role of citizens in democracies, such as the idea that
people should vote for their self-interest or for the interests of groups
with which they identify.
- Professor of Education & Psychology School of Education, Hebrew
University of Jerusalem Response: email to Edwin Rutsch "Just briefly, the term "identifiable victim" was coined by
Shelling. Regarding Paul Bloom's reference to our work, I think it
was quite accurate. I share his view that while empathy certainly
has an important role, it is highly susceptible to biases, and
should not serve as the sole basis for public policy."
Others Other articles, etc. found replying to the
I Could Say that Paul Bloom is a Callous Idiot,
But I Empathize With Him…
DECEMBER 19, 2014 / NATHAN J. ROBINSON”
" Note: I am late to the
discussion on Paul Bloom’s “Against Empathy,” which appeared
in the Boston Review earlier this year. But as far as I can
tell, though Bloom’s essay received plenty of attention, it
has not gotten nearly enough of the outright ridicule that it
"Whether or not you agree with Bloom's arguments, the post is
worth reading, as are the many insightful and often brilliant
responses written by a broad spectrum of commentators,
including: Marco Iacoboni, neuroscientist; Peter Singer,
ethicist; Barbara Fried, law professor and public policy
expert; Maryanne LaFrance, psychologist and women's studies
expert; Nomy Arpaly, philosophy professor; Christine Montross,
physician/poet; and Leslie Jamison and Simon Baron-Cohen,
writers/commentators with strong interests in empathy."
"In the May 20, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, Yale psychologist Paul
Bloom agreed with my point. In reviewing a spate of recent books
advocating the importance of empathy, Bloom concludes that empathy can
only get us so far. He points out that empathy works to move us out of
ourselves, but its range is quite limited. We can often feel empathy
for specific individuals who have suffered terribly – such as James
“Bim” Costello whose picture showing him staggering from the Boston
Marathon bomb site was plastered in newspapers and the web. But it’s a
lot harder to feel empathy for nameless victims who are only reported
in the news media as statistics. This is why Bloom rejects empathy as
an adequate grounds for morality."
"Obviously Bloom and Harris-Gershon are making
excellent points – especially that we need to expand beyond the
narrow focus of most empathy. But there is a serious fallacy in
their reasoning: they pose empathy and reason as opposed sides
in a dichotomy. They have framed the issue as reason, logic, and
statistics VERSUS emotion, empathy, and compassion.
While acknowledging the value of empathy, both essayists argue
that reason is far superior for dealing with today’s challenges.
However, their arguments narrowly focus on the shortcomings of
empathy, neglecting the considerable shortcomings of
May 20, 2013 issue of the New Yorker Paul Bloom argues convincingly that
policy should include more rational argument and less empathy. Empathy
leads us to spend a million dollars to get a single little girl out of a
well, and yet have to scrap over pennies for building a fence that keeps
the girl out of the well in the first place. Empathy leads us to commit an
outsized amount of research funds to a deadly disease that affects only a
few people, while ignoring or underfunding research that would prevent
diseases in the first place. Empathy leads us to worry about the effects
of mitigation of global warming because of anecdotes about people who
might be put out of business with greater regulatory efforts to reduce
carbon emissions, while not being able to envision and prevent the effects
on future generations (now a cliche).Bloom is right about all of this. But he is
wrong about his conclusion."
"Bloom tilts at windmills and lets innuendo convey the message that
empathy is bad and reason is good. There is just enough hedging in the
piece to supply plausible deniability on this charge, but we all know
how catchy journalism really works. Little qualifications on the side
don’t affect most readers’ takeaway. At the end of the day, nobody
really disagrees with the statement that “Moral judgment entails more
than putting oneself in another’s shoes.”"
"A few words first about empathy and reason prior to
the story of my remarkable discovery of Empathy Deficit Disorder, a
feat sure to be honored with great renown. In the May 20th edition
of The New Yorker, Paul Bloom wrote a concise (if not exactly
Lincolnesque) essay called “The Baby in the Well.” It’s a critique of
our ready rush to empathy as the answer to all the world’s ills,
including the ones we so often see in our work. The essay’s title
refers to a story I remember well, as will your parents: In 1987, a
baby named Jessica McClure fell into a well somewhere in Texas.
goes on to mention similar well-recalled events, from another child
who in 1949 fell into some other well, to those without happy endings,
such as the 2005 disappearance of a teenager named Natalee Holloway
while vacationing in Aruba. “Why,” he asks, “do people respond to
these misfortunes and not to others?” Bloom, like many of you here a
student of psychology, reviews the works of his colleagues:”
"Paul Bloom’s recent New Yorker article, “The Case Against
Empathy,” makes a depressing argument: empathy—our ability to
feel for others—is at the heart of what it means to be a human,
and empathy is bad.
Here’s the problem as Bloom sees it: we are hardwired to have
empathy for people who exist and, of the people who exist,
people we know. This is a big problem in and of itself. But
what’s worse is that we don't experience this basic constraint
on empathy as a problem. In our day-to-day, we experience it as
"When empathy causes
us to ignore logic or science, its consequences can be harmful
But abstract statistics don’t engage our empathy. On the other
hand, those who oppose reductions in carbon dioxide emissions
have many identifiable victims now – all those who will be hurt
by the high cost of reducing emissions. Consequently, empathic
concerns today frustrate action to reduce emissions allowing
global warming, that will harm countless people in the future,
to continue. The lesson is: good moral judgments and good deeds
often call on us to put empathy to one side."
"The role of empathy in the Creative Economy It is therefore astonishing to read in the book review section of the
2013 innovation issue a denigration of the very notion of empathy. It
describes a number of books that rightly point to the growing
importance of empathy and then bizarrely declares the “enthusiasm for
empathy” to be “misplaced”. That’s because “empathy has some
unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded and innumerate.”
Empathy, we are told, leads us to reach out to the visible few and
ignore the less empathetic, but more substantial, masses."
In effect, welcome to the 20th Century! Thus the enormous flaw of 20th
Century management was a lack of empathy for both customers and
employees; instead there was a reliance on efficiency no matter what,
through cost-cutting and time-and-motion studies, with the goal of
making money for the company and its executives.
"Empathy," writes Paul Bloom in The New Yorker this week, "is
parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We're often at our best when
we're smart enough not to rely on it." We'd be better off were we to
supplant our flawed empathetic sensibilities with reason (that most
flawless of human capacities)...
But to truly empathize is not easy. In this sense Bloom is right: we're
more likely to do so with those who look and think like we do. So rather
than dismiss empathy, why not commit ourselves to practicing it more
deliberately and more often, and expanding our spheres of empathy to those
who are not just different but who challenge some of our very own moral
"Empathy is destroying us. Allow me to explain: One of
our most powerful, affective emotions is our ability to feel or relate
to the condition of another. While emotions such as grief and guilt
often lead to paralysis, empathy leads us to action. We witness the
suffering of someone in our community, read an emotive Facebook post
of a friend in need of help, or hear the pained cries of our child and
are moved to act. (We donate money to a personal cancer fund, offer
advice, and comfort our child.)
Why? Because we, in part, are able to
personally feel the experience of that person standing outside
ourselves. We are hit by an emotional wave that is personal, and that
wave pushes us forward. In some ways, empathy is killing us. This is
the case Paul Bloom makes in The New Yorker, where he explores how the
parochial and narrow borders that define empathy are working against
us in a global world where we affect not just those around us, but
those across this planet."
"Paul Bloom gives important and eloquent voice to the critics of
“empathy” in his recent piece in the New Yorker. I read it with great
interest, respect, and gratitude to him for shining a light on how the
idea of empathy can be misperceived and misused, especially politically.
Much of the confusion lies in various interpretations of what “empathy”
is and is not...
Paul Bloom’s recent New Yorker essay, “The
Baby in the Well,”
has created a small internet stir by calling out the many vices
rather than the oft heralded virtues of empathy—a major academic
and self-help trend. Bloom’s basic criticism can be summed as
follows: empathy distracts us from what really matters since it
requires feeling or relating to the situation of others to
necessitate social/political action; such feelings are typically
directed at concerns of relative insignificance when compared to
situations of dire importance that fail to engender much
Obviously Bloom and Harris-Gershon are making excellent points –
especially that we need to expand beyond the narrow focus of
most empathy. But there is a serious fallacy in their reasoning:
they pose empathy and reason as opposed sides in a dichotomy.
They have framed the issue as reason, logic, and statistics
VERSUS emotion, empathy, and compassion.
While acknowledging the value of empathy, both essayists argue
that reason is far superior for dealing with today’s challenges.
However, their arguments narrowly focus on the shortcomings of
empathy, neglecting the considerable shortcomings of
rationality. Rationality has a strong tendency to be neatly
reductionist and cleverly self-serving. It is prone to mistaking
its maps for the territories they describe. It too often asserts
that it operates objectively, independent of values and biases,
when closer examination reveals it to be rife with values and
assumptions that just happen to be invisible to its supposedly
Bloom recently argued that empathy is a bad guide for
decision-making, precisely because it is a slave to triggers
such as images of others’ suffering. On Bloom’s reasoning, this
means that empathy will often drive irrational choices based on
emotions: for instance, helping a single suffering child we see
on television while ignoring countless others who receive less
press. Although Bloom is right in many cases, if empathy is a
choice, then people can presumably learn to use it when they
know it is most important. For instance, people could decide to
“turn up” empathy for victims with whom they might not
immediately connect (a suggestion made earlier by Daryl Cameron
as well). Broadly speaking, empathy we can control is empathy
we can co-opt to help others as much as possible."
Paul Bloom "....I'm not entirely against empathy -- as
I mention at the end of the article, I think it's essential for
...I agree that empathy has driven people to do wonderful things. But,
as I discuss in my article, it has also motivated terrible things,
such as savage punishments that are driven by empathy for victims.
See also here, 2nd paragraph:
...My argument is that empathy is often inadequate for policy
decisions. You simply can't emphasize with a billion people; or with
people who don't yet exist; empathy is insensitive to number and it's
statistically stupid. ... I'm calling for people to use other moral
faculties instead, such as self-control, perspective taking, rational
deliberation, notions of fairness, justice, and impartiality, and
conceptions of human rights. ..
I think empathy can be very useful for certain more "local" problems,"
"Bloom is on the right track when he calls for moral
resources other than empathy, for it tends to be fickle and unstable.
Turning inward, he identifies “reason” as a better resource. The moral
life is essentially a struggle to bring the passions under the
guidance of reason. And if we turn outward, we may find that
“relational duty,” one cultivated in spaces of tight proximity, is a
fruitful avenue for doing that.
"I was upset because the article seemed to be trying to encourage
people not to use empathy. The article called empathy "narrow-minded",
and a poor choice to use when making decisions. I confronted him about
each of these ideas." Janet
"The concept of empathy—putting yourself into another's
shoes—has fueled political and moral thinking of late, inspiring
presidents and academics to hail the feeling of another's pain as
necessary to curing the world's ills. Crucial to empathy is "victim
identification", by which we come to know the human face of tragedy.
As a result, we are far more likely to give donations to a person
whose picture we see on the news than seek solutions for systemic
problems, such as underfunded hospitals, that affect the lives of far
more individuals. In other words, empathy can result in the
sacrificing of the many for the one. "
as a reliable guide to action? David Brooks, in his recent article "The
Limits of Empathy,"
suggests that empathy is no guarantee that caring action will take
place. Participants in Milgram's famous 1950s experiments willingly
inflicted what they thought were near-lethal electric shocks despite
suffering tremendously. Nazi executors early in the war wept while
killing Jews. And yet those strong feelings didn't stop them. Why does
this happen? "