Author: Paul Bloom
The emphatic and seemingly counterintuitive argument that is at the heart of this book is that empathy, notwithstanding its laudable profile, is actually a detrimental emotion after all. Conceding that empathy is universally recognised as beneficial, and perceived as the root of kindness and morality, the book nevertheless asserts that ‘if we want to make the world a better place…we are better off without empathy‘ (pages 22, 25 and 3). The author contends that empathy, ‘our capacity to see the world through other’s eyes, to feel what they feel’, is in reality ‘a poor moral guide‘ that facilitates ‘foolish judgments’, and ‘motivates indifference and cruelty‘. In a line of reasoning that may come across as provocatively contentious, the author goes as far as to argue that many problems faced by individuals and society can be directly attributed to ‘too much empathy‘ (pages 2 and 5). Because the views espoused in the book have implications that are relevant to a wide range of fields, from foreign aid to medical training, the author asks readers to suspend their emotional instincts and appreciate the strengths of the rational arguments and reasonable evidence he marshals to defend his position (pages 5, 99, 118-124, and 142-151).
In setting out his case, the author made it clear that his position on empathy is not a condemnation of its admirable values in terms of morality, compassion, kindness, love, and ‘doing the right thing‘. He also maintains that, like everyone else, he wants to make the world ‘a better place‘, conceding that doing good in the world requires an understanding of what is going on in the minds of other people. The author, a psychologist, even acknowledges that empathy ‘can be strategically used to motivate people to do good things’, but he strongly insists that this is ‘the wrong way‘ to motivate good behaviour because whatever good empathy does is limited, and not better than the selective good that are spurred by other emotions such as anger and fear (pages 15, 36, and 45-48). He attributed the limitations of emotional empathy to its reliance, not on objective facts, but on the subjective belief that we feel and experience the world in the same way other people do (pages 3 and 16-17).
The book’s uphill task was to convince expectedly skeptical readers that empathy is inherently harmful. In attempting this, the book’s key argument was founded on the extremely narrow focus that empathy has on issues, the author pointing out that actions evoked by empathy usually only benefit the few rather than the majority, and they are usually limited to ‘the here and now‘ (page 31). The author was particularly critical of the way acts of empathy favour those who are ‘far easier to empathize with’, blaming this on the human tendency to relate better with people who are similar, more attractive, or more vulnerable; in this way, empathy disadvantages those who appear disgusting or self-sufficient (pages 31 and 90-91 ). The author also highlighted the tendency for empathy to be triggered by ‘novel and unusual events‘, to the detriment of long-standing or more pervasive problems, illustrating this with the example of how victims of mass shootings, constituting only about 0.1 percent of homicides in America, receive disproportionate amounts of attention and empathy. The book therefore portrays empathy as a gut instinct which is ‘blind to statistical data‘, and as an emotion which has a restricted capacity to ‘one or two people at the same time’ (pages 31-33).
The book makes a stronger and more consequential denunciation of empathy when it explored the long-term ‘greater suffering‘ it inadvertently promotes (page 31). The author specifically blamed empathy for the reason resources are unfairly and disproportionately diverted to empathy-evoking problems, and away from significant but less visible problems; the author attributes this flaw at the heart of empathy to how its disregard for the ‘calculation of costs and benefits‘ leads to skewed decisions (pages 42 and 95). The author also pointed out that empathetic people, ‘too caught up in the suffering of other people’, are unable to inflict the short-term pain required to alleviate longer-term problems (pages 32 and 35). More worryingly, he argues that empathy distorts our moral judgments ‘in pretty much the same way that prejudice does’; he said this is because, by favouring the few who are close to us, empathy can motivate evil, ‘spark irrational cruelty‘, trigger violence, and evoke racism (pages 9, 31, 42, and 185-191).
To firm up its arguments against empathy, the book discusses a wide range of drawbacks it attributes to the emotion. One such consequence of empathy the book highlighted is the physical and psychological harm it does to the empathetic person. For example, the author cited several research findings which demonstrate that people who have an excessive concern for others, people with pathological altruism or unmitigated communion, are at a high risk of medical disorders such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression, and burnout (pages 133-137). The book also discussed the negative impact of empathy on interpersonal relationships, for example when it argued that empathy may impair parenting because it constrains the ability to follow the principle of ‘making children suffer temporarily for their own good’ (pages 129-132 and 154). At the societal level, the book dismissed the assertion that low empathy, as symbolised by Simon Baron-Cohen‘s concept of empathy erosion, predisposes to evil acts; indeed the author cited research which show that ‘being high in empathy doesn’t make one a good person, and being low in empathy doesn’t make one a bad person’ (pages 81-84).
Rather than relying on empathy to make consequential decisions, the author advocated several alternatives which he declared are more effective means of doing good. In this regard, he suggested substituting empathy with compassion, an emotion he promoted as a more equitable basis for doing good because it is not shackled by the requirement to mirror the feelings of others (page 41). He particularly advocated compassion in some contexts such as the doctor-patient relationship where he urged physicians to treat their patients with concern and understanding, but to maintain an emotional distance in doing so (pages 51 and 147). Other alternatives to empathy he recommended, which he said provide longer-lasting satisfaction than empathic engagement, included kindness, reason, cost-benefit analysis, and consequentialism-the view that morality is all about ‘maximising good results‘ (pages 39 and 28-29). He also illustrated the effectiveness of these alternatives to empathy with the anecdote of Zell Kravinsky, the investor who was motivated, not by empathy, but by ‘cold logic and reasoning‘, to altruistically donate a kidney to a total stranger, and to give away almost all his wealth to charity (pages 26-27).
This is a highly considered and novel view of empathy which appears counterintuitive to general understanding. The author supports his reasoned conclusions with research findings and philosophical arguments. He makes a clear distinction between empathy, which he discourages, and compassion, which he advocates, basing his preference on their long-term and broader outcomes rather than their short-term and narrow benefits. The book is well-written and the arguments clearly stated. It is difficult to dismiss his line of reasoning, although many physicians will instinctively object to some of his recommendations, particularly to maintain an emotional distance from their patients. Considering the emotional burden of care on care-givers, it may be too hasty to dismiss even this suggestion, especially as the author advocated alternatives such as kindness and compassion.
This books counters long-held assumptions about empathy, highlighting the risks that come with relying on this emotion in decision-making. The subject is highly relevant to healthcare where the interplay of emotions determine several outcomes, and where the allocation of resources requires a careful assessment of risks and benefits. The subject of this book is central to medical medical practice and I recommend it to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Vintage , London, 2016
Number of chapters: 6
Number of pages: 241
Star rating: 5