March 19, 2017

Review Corner

I used to believe this as well. But now I don't. Empathy has its merits. It can be a great source of pleasure, involved in art and fiction and sports, and it can be a valuable aspect of intimate relationships. And it can sometimes spark us to do good. But on the whole, it's a poor moral guide. It grounds foolish judgments and often motivates indifference and cruelty. It can lead to irrational and unfair political decisions, it can corrode certain important relationships, such as between a doctor and a patient, and make us worse at being friends , parents, husbands, and wives. I am against empathy, and one of the goals of this book is to persuade you to be against empathy too.
Paul Bloom is not a fan of empathy. I hear ThreeSourcers across this great nation asking "What kind of right-wing, fascist, wing-nut claptrap is this?" Hahahaha, just kidding. The sound I hear is a thousand mouseclicks ordering Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. You will not be disappointed; it's a great book. But those expecting a hard edged, libertarian or Randian polemic will be surprised.

Before we get there, though, let's bask in the thesis. Empathy has her charms, but she's a poor guide to action.

Some scholars will go on to reassure us that the emotional nature of morality is a good thing. Morality is the sort of thing that one shouldn't think through. Many of our moral heroes, real and fictional, are not rational maximizers or ethical eggheads; they are people of heart. From Huckleberry Finn to Pip to Jack Bauer, from Jesus to Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., they are individuals of great feeling. Rationality gets you Hannibal Lecter and Lex Luther .
[...]
But I wrote the book you are holding because I believe our emotional nature has been oversold. We have gut feelings, but we also have the capacity to override them, to think through issues, including moral issues, and to come to conclusions that can surprise us. I think this is where the real action is. It's what makes us distinctively human, and it gives us the potential to be better to one another, to create a world with less suffering and more flourishing and happiness.

I think every conservative, every libertarian, and every objectivist will set the book down on occasion to burst into load cheering. Reason's ascendancy makes us -- not only pareto-equivalent wealthier but also better friends, parents, and philanthropists.
I've been focusing here on empathy in the Adam Smith sense, of feeling what others feel and, in particular, feeling their pain. Iíve argued -- and I'll expand on this throughout the rest of the book with more examples and a lot more data -- that this sort of empathy is biased and parochial; it focuses you on certain people at the expense of others; and it is innumerate, so it distorts our moral and policy decisions in ways that cause suffering instead of relieving it.

He gets ten points from both me and Russ Roberts (I heard about the book on an EconTalk podcast) for serial allusion to Adam Smith. Smith remarked 250 years ago that a close friend's difficulties or a minor medical procedure on ourselves outweigh major catastrophes across the world. Sorry, hippies, that's empathy at work. Because it is harder to "feel the pain" of a Chinese earthquake victim than a co-worker's sick child, is that a good vector to direct our compassion?
These are all serious cases. But why these and not others? It's surely not their significance in any objective sense. Paul Slovic discusses the immense focus on Natalee Holloway, an eighteen-year-old American student who went missing on vacation in Aruba and was believed to have been abducted and murdered. He points out that when Holloway went missing, the story of her plight took up far more television time than the concurrent genocide in Darfur.

One of the antecedents of "these cases" is the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. How many bad gun laws were passed in that tragedy's wake because moms and dads could "feel" the horror of that at their child's school. Reason did not get a seat in the boat.

I left breadcrumbs of doubt along this review. He does not take the road of reason to the same destinations some of us would. I can't let my Randian friends down easily. He is hostile to one whom I'd see as a philosophical ally.

For every Uncle Tom's Cabin there is a Birth of a Nation. For every Bleak House there is an Atlas Shrugged. For every Color Purple there is a Turner Diaries, that white supremacist novel Timothy McVeigh left in his truck on the way to bombing the Oklahoma building. Every single one of these fictions plays on its readers' empathy: not just high- minded writers like Dickens, who invite us to sympathize with Little Dorrit, but also writers of Westerns, who present poor helpless colonizers attacked by awful violent Native Americans ; Ayn Rand, whose resplendent "job-creators" are constantly being bothered by the pesky spongers who merely do the real work; and so on and so on.

If it's any consolation to the Randians 'round these parts, I don't think he gets Bleak House either. Little Dorrit, perhaps, but his earlier reference to Bleak House truly puzzled me.

Still, these are nits. He missed the point of Atlas Shrugged but managed to work it out on his own. It is an important work and its lack of right-wing-ism (a pointy-headed Yale Psychology Professor fer cryin' out loud!) might attract others. I sense that the Angus Deaton [Review Corner], James Tooley [Review Corner], William Easterly [Review Corner],and Poverty Inc. [Official Site] rethinking of the efficacy of charity is in the works. This could supplement it substantively.

Five Stars.

Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at March 19, 2017 11:38 AM

How different really is "rational compassion" from "compassionate conservatism?" I don't have an answer to that, I'm hoping the Review Corner author does.

The idea that empathy or compassion could ever leave our legislation or jurisprudence is impossible to envision. Given that, I'll take compassion over empathy any day.

Posted by: johngalt at March 21, 2017 2:53 PM

Well, I'll defend "rational compassion." So that's a start.

Pointy-headed Yale man (with all due respect to Thurston J. Howell, III) does an important job here. "Empathy" has pretty well morphed into a synonym for "good" these days. He both corrals it into its specific meaning of experiencing another's feelings -- and documents why this may not really be good.

I ran out of space / reader attention for more examples, but one I should not have omitted was the psychopath. If you're really good at getting into others' heads, you might be a sweet angel, but you are just as likely to be a manipulator or con man.

Another great example is the doctor delivering a bad diagnosis or friend comforting one in a state of panic. In both cases, one of the participants should be calm and measured to provide stability.

He is writing to an audience for whom this is a brand new idea: "Huh? Empathy can be bad?" Reason, he is saying, provides ultimately greater compassion than empathy. I think that's defensible. "Compassionate Conservatism," sigh, is difficult to defend. I'm sure some high-powered focus group rated it highly once, but it never calmed anybody biased against conservatism nor failed to offend one biased towards it.

Posted by: jk at March 21, 2017 3:37 PM | What do you think? [2]