Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum


by Jeff Polet

In this nearly ten-year old essay, the philosopher Paul Bloom makes an argument against empathy (he subsequently published a book by the same title, but I’ve not read it). I’ll confess to being attracted to iconoclastic points of view, those that make us rethink something everyone knows to be right.

Who could be against empathy? Jonathan Haidt, who has attempted doggedly to solve our divisions by arguing that all of us are moral actors who can’t solve our differences through argument, has put empathy at the forefront of our interactions. Many psychologists have looked more closely at empathy, operating from the assumption that more empathy is better. Bloom writes:

Most people see the benefits of empathy as akin to the evils of racism: too obvious to require justification. I think this is a mistake.

That gets my attention. Bloom’s main argument is that empathy is a poor guide to public policy, and even if I think he may be right about that I’m not convinced by his reasons. Our first obligation as readers, however, is to understand and not to judge. Why would empathy be a poor guide to public policy? Because empathy is both particular and discriminating. We will become more interested in the plight of one person whose story we know something about than the well-being of 100 we know nothing of. Operating with a utilitarian framework (pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number), Bloom suggests that policy-makers can’t allow their decisions to be influenced by tales of woe or triumph.

We live in a world, however, where those involved in the policy process have come to understand the power of anecdote, and treat “data” as if that’s the plural of anecdote. They tend not to make decisions on the basis of calculating trade-offs and the benefits that accrue to majorities. Bloom writes:

Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction. Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of vaccinating children and responding to climate change. These acts impose costs on real people in the here and now for the sake of abstract future benefits, so tackling them may require overriding empathetic responses that favor the comfort and well being of individuals today. We can rethink humanitarian aid and the criminal justice system, choosing to draw on a reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences.

Large-scale bureaucratic operations are in their essence anti-empathetic, so I don’t think they need encouragement. They’ll deal on the basis of aggregated data and impersonal interactions. Granted, Congress and the President might exploit personal stories as a way to direct bureaucratic activity, and for that reason I tend to agree with Bloom that empathy doesn’t necessarily lead to good policy.

His second argument against empathy is, I think, a more interesting one: the idea that it enmeshes us in others problems so thoroughly we lose sight of our own well-being. If someone is in a hole and trying to get out, we do that person no favors by getting in the hole with them. We need to maintain some distance and some leverage, which is part of what I mean by “sense of self.” About this, Bloom states:

Strong inclination toward empathy comes with costs. Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety.

I think his argument squares in a lot of ways with my experience as a parent. When our children were younger we certainly tried to teach them the importance of empathy (“how would you feel if someone did that to you?” “You made your sister cry!”). This wasn’t easy, and after 18 years of having them in our house we met with some success, but not entire (which is why I think it risible that colleges have in their course outcomes that students will “be more empathetic” as a result of taking a particular class; typically such endeavors make students less intellectually flexible or astute). More importantly, parents have to learn how to support their children in their problems without allowing those problems to take over their own lives. When my children were younger I referred to this as “benevolent indifference”: if I acted like something was a big problem, my child would regard it as such.

But as my children got bigger their problems got bigger, and the line separating “supporting” from “enabling” or “being absorbed by” became even more difficult to maintain. I think the reason for that has a lot to do with why empathy matters. The point of empathy is not to make the other person feel good, nor is it to make you feel good; the point of empathy is to respect the personhood of the other in its fullness. That means we need to understand them multidimensionally, not in terms of one “accidental” birth characteristic; as free creatures who can pursue proper ends without coercion; and thus also as responsible creatures who are accountable for the choices that they make. It means that sometimes we have to speak bluntly, act distantly, and be cruel to be kind.

The key to empathy, thus, is to see the other as he or she is, to understand that person and his or her experiences, and to love them with a discriminating passion that isn’t simply a part of the general compassion we feel for everyone. Proper empathy is difficult, is not easily taught, and requires keen judgement for its proper exercise. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, doesn’t operate where the other is neither seen nor known, and is attentive to its own limitations.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does empathy scale well, or does it only operate well when it attends to particular persons?
  2. Can empathy ever lead us astray? What is its relationship to judgement?
  3. How can people be made more empathetic without desensitizing them or making them feel jaded?

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