Review: ‘Against Empathy,’ or the Right Way to Feel Someone’s Pain

Jennifer Senior in the New York Times:

07BOOKBLOOM-1-master180-v3Paul Bloom’s new book, “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” is too highbrow to be a self-help or parenting manual, but parts of it could be. Its wingspan is too wide to be a simple guide to philanthropy, but parts of it could be that as well. And it’s a bit too clotted with caveats to be a seamless read, which is a shame, because it could have been, with more shaping.

Look past the book’s occasional loop-the-loops and intellectual fillips. “Against Empathy” is an invigorating, relevant and often very funny re-evaluation of empathy, one of our culture’s most ubiquitous sacred cows, which in Mr. Bloom’s view should be gently led to the abattoir. He notes that there are no less than 1,500 books listed on Amazon with “empathy” in the title or subtitle. In politics, practically no higher value exists than being empathetic: Think of the words “I feel your pain” coming from Bill Clinton through a strategically gnawed lip. Empathy is what is invoked, on both sides, in confrontations between the police and African-Americans. (Imagine how it feels to live in a universe of systematic and serial injustice directed at you; imagine how it feels to work in a profession that continually puts you in harm’s way.)

Mr. Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale, is having none of it. Empathy, he argues, is “a poor moral guide” in almost all realms of life, whether it’s public policy, private charity or interpersonal relationships. “Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism,” he writes. Offended? He’s just warming up. “It is innumerate,” he continues, “favoring the one over the many. It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others.”

More here.