The case against the case against empathy

Twitter is a poor medium for debating complicated subjects, so my “Possibly the dumbest thing I’ve read ever” comment on Paul Bloom’s recent New Yorker piece,The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy,” understandably contributed little to the advancement of understanding.  I’m still learning the pros and cons of Twitter.  But alea iacta est, so in response to reply tweets such as “Did you read the article, or just the title?” (thank you for that), here are the issues I have with it.

To begin, Bloom conflates at least four distinct psychological phenomena and calls them all “empathy.”  Admittedly, both dictionaries and common usage aren’t good at keeping these distinct, largely because English is a living language and dictionary definitions eventually follow common usage.  But our job as scholars is to clear up confusion, not promote it.  Here are the four phenomena, with my preferred labels for each:

  1. Empathy.  This is the capacity to see the world from another’s perspective.  It is merely to understand, not to agree with.  Reagan and Gorbachev managed empathy, in the sense that they both came to understand that the other feared nuclear war more than anything else, but neither made a convert of the other.
  2. Sympathy.  This adds to cognitive understanding both cognitive and emotional agreement: you both understand and share.  Reagan and Thatcher  did not merely empathize with each other; they sympathized.
  3. Compassion.  This is feeling sorry for someone in a way that tugs at your heartstrings and makes you want to help.  You may not understand how that person sees the world, and even if you do you may not share the perspective and the feeling; but you are a nice person who wants to relieve what you believe (probably correctly most of the time) to be someone else’s suffering.  The idiot who offered to shoulder a convict’s burden on the Via Dolorosa in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian was moved by compassion, and clearly didn’t know enough about the convict to anticipate being stuck with his cross.
  4. Pity.  This is compassion’s evil twin, because it adds a self-esteem booster in the form of “thank God I’m not like that.”

Now, these distinctions are important, because empathy as I have defined it is almost never a bad thing.  Empathy won’t cure all the world’s ills, and from time to time it will just help you understand more clearly that there are no feel-good ways out of a jam (Churchill understood earlier than most that the only way to defeat Hitler was to thump him).  But you are only ever better off not empathizing in trivial kinds of cases—for example, when someone secretly thinks you look fat.  Sympathy, compassion, and pity, on the other hand, can get us into really big trouble some of the time.  Not all of the time; some of the time.

How much of the time?  Anecdotes about ill-defined “empathy” resulting in outcomes that someone else would not have chosen don’t establish general points—they merely illustrate challenges.  Bloom’s piece is strong on anecdotes, but makes them sound like general points.  He admiringly quotes Thomas Schelling, who writes: “Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her.  But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.”  Probably true, but hospitals in general are much better funded than six-year-old girls with brown hair.  Or take Newtown.  Compassion is surely part of the reason why “in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, [Newtown] was inundated with so much charity that it became a burden.”  This is a classic example of unintended consequences, or a function of what Schelling called micromotives and macrobehavior—the solution to which is to coordinate and plan, not to diss compassion.

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.”  But you can’t make rational judgments on the basis of misunderstandings.    Our various mental faculties coevolved as they did precisely because they were adaptive together.  We need both empathy and reason.  No one illustrates the point better than Tom Schelling, whose hyper-rational approach to solving problems helped lead to the unnecessary deaths of 58,000 Americans and some 3 million Vietnamese.  A little empathy would have prevented that.