Aspen Untucked: The Fault of Empathy
What’s so wrong with empathy? As it turns out, there’s a lot.
In our society, we seem to have a mantra we stick to pretty strongly. We believe that in order to understand someone, we must walk a mile in their shoes. But what if this weren’t the case. What if putting ourselves into the exact situation as someone else, in hopes of understanding them, wasn’t only an inconvenience, but a particularly bad thing to do? This is the argument that psychologist Paul Bloom brings up in his recent book “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.” In this book, and in numerous lectures and interviews he’s given this year — most recently at the Aspen Ideas Festival — he shows that empathy is a horrible guide for morality.
I first heard of Bloom and his theory in a two-hour long segment of Sam Harris’ podcast. The episode is titled “Abusing Dolores.” They talked at length about his book and the research he’s done to back up his thesis. Harris and Bloom also dived into topics such as artificial intelligence, Westworld (hence the name of the episode), Donald Trump and more — all topics came back to Bloom’s point that empathy may not be the best option. If you’ve got the time, I highly recommend you give this episode a listen at SamHarris.org.
This podcast was originally recommended to me by a friend, and it’s probably because they know me a bit too well. I’m empathetic to a fault. Growing up, I had trouble watching movies where kids were bullied or excluded because it would make me actually feel their pain. Even today, among my friends and my family, I often get so involved with what others must be feeling or thinking that I spread myself too thin, trying to please everyone and, ultimately, driving myself into the ground. But that’s always the way I thought I should go about things. Like, if I wasn’t trying to constantly feel and understand the woes of everyone around, I was selfish.
Bloom’s take on this method surprised me. In fact, when he first started to describe his thesis on the podcast, I was a bit offended by it. I didn’t understand what could be so wrong about being empathetic toward others. I figured if someone had a lack of empathy, that must mean they are mean, even villainous.
Turns out, a lot of people have that initial reaction to Bloom’s books and talks. They either think he’s practically evil to be against empathy or that he must be making a joke. But, when we zoom in on exactly what empathy is and how it affects us, Bloom has a solid argument for why we should not use it to make decisions. First, it’s not necessary and can often get in the way of actually helping someone. At his lecture at the Ideas Festival, Bloom brought up the scenario of someone saving a child who is drowning. The person rescuing this boy or girl doesn’t need to feel how scary it is to be drowning in order to know the child must be saved.
“You know something is right without having to feel the same things as someone else,” Bloom said at his lecture Monday. “You know you have to do the right thing without putting yourself in a person’s shoes who is suffering.”
Another reason empathy is not necessary is that the action in itself is not fair; it’s biased. Empathy has no concept of numbers. In fact, in certain situations we may even understand the struggles of one person more than we can the struggles of thousands. Plus, we are much more likely to be empathetic to those who we relate to or care about. Bloom backs up all these statements in his book with much research, so I’ll let him do the talking there. I’ll finish this column with Bloom’s solution. He states that we must have compassion for others, not empathy. What’s the difference? With empathy, we’re trying to experience someone else’s feelings as if they are our own. In compassion, we work to understand someone’s qualm without being consumed by it. Through compassion, Bloom says, we can be much more reasonable and, ultimately, more helpful.
As for me, I would still describe myself as empathetic to a fault. But I make a conscience effort to take a step back from situations or people when I feel myself getting overly consumed by them. I try to remember that I don’t have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes in order to understand them. Simply knowing what kind of shoes they were wearing when they walked that mile is enough to make me care.
Barbara Platts highly recommends checking out Bloom’s book. You can get it at your local Explore Booksellers. Reach her at email@example.com.
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