Against Empathy: the Case for Rational Compassion

Empathy is widely regarded as one of life’s most important skills, but can it ever go too far? In his 2016 book Against Empathy, Canadian American psychologist and professor of psychology Dr. Paul Bloom makes the case for “rational compassion”, reminding us that empathy has a dark side.

Of the possible definitions one could use, the definition Bloom uses here is “imagining the feelings of another and attempting to feel them too”.  He argues that imagining someone else’s feelings is probably impossible and even if a person is successful in imagining the misery of another and reproducing it in himself we are only left with the multiplication of debilitating misery. Bloom asserts that reason is a better guide than empathy in most circumstances.

It is precisely in the worst of circumstances that this kind of empathy could be the most counterproductive. Think of nurses or first responders. What is most helpful to sufferers in an emergency is not empathy (which is likely to actually impede proper care) but cool, rational, response, and level-headed decision making.

Bloom argues that if empathy makes things better at all (and he seriously doubts it) it works best in one to one situations. But even here empathy is not always the answer as it can make us blind to the big picture. Bloom calls it a “spotlight” that leaves the rest of the picture dark.

Empathy, he says, creates “prejudice for the particular” which can lead to bigotry. Research proves we are most empathic with those who seem the most like our loved ones and ourselves. This is because we think we find it easier to imagine the feelings of those who look like us.

Bloom argues empathy is especially unhelpful in large scale public contexts and what is needed instead is reason that is able to weigh and balance mutual goods over the spontaneous emotional response to a particular event or person, which may not even represent the experience of most people. He points out the proliferation of laws named for victims and argues that the rule of law should be moved by what is best for all, over time, and not by the one story that is the most moving to the voting public at the moment. 

Dr Bloom also shows how an empathic response tends to prejudice the immediate alleviation of current pain of the individual over long-term solutions that benefit all. Empathy demands, “Solutions now!” but of course some problems require time and patience and sometimes hasty cures are worse than the disease. 

Social science has also shown women to be naturally more empathic than men. Dr Jordan Peterson, the renowned clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, is of the opinion that women’s central nervous systems are not evolutionarily attuned to the good and survival of individual women themselves but to the mother/infant unit, for the sake of the survival of the species as a whole.

Empathy, as an evolutionary attribute of females, suggests to women that those who are crying out need immediate care. Peterson argues this would absolutely be true in children under about nine months but beyond that age children’s immediate desires are not as pressing. In fact they will begin to desire things that are not good for them and their cries will sometimes need to be met with a negative response: No, you cannot chew on that small plastic choking hazard. This might be met with howls from the child but the good mother reasons within herself and refuses to cave, in spite of the discomfort she may feel at the child’s cries.

We have all noticed some parents giving in to a whining child and wondered if that was really best. Take for instance sweets: a sip or a bite won’t hurt of course, but giving in repeatedly will mean the demands of the child increase, and if a parent gives in regularly the results could be seriously problematic. Not only will the physical health of the child suffer from poor food choices, but he will become used to getting his way. Perpetually indulged children do not grow into the kind of adults who benefit society.

Usually parents naturally grow to understand the dangers of unmitigated empathy toward their children through experience. In times past, parents simply didn’t want to live with the misbehavior of their children so the investment of time to make a child behave paid off.

But as parents now spend less time with their children due to overscheduling, the relationship becomes more like that of a grandparent from generations ago who is indulgent but can send the child away to others when the child’s behavior becomes unbearable. 

Drs Warren Farrell and John Gray in their book The Boy Crisis, argue that men are less empathic with their children, and contact with men (especially fathers) surprisingly creates children who are more empathic, whereas the unchecked empathy of the mother, without father or male involvement, causes a sense of entitlement in children. 

The father’s unique contribution to a child’s life is precisely his less empathic attitude toward his offspring’s cries, which can help a child become better able to forgo gratification for the sake of achieving higher goals. But as children tend to be raised by mothers, and as education, health care and psychology are now dominated by women, the benefits of male mentors will be lost.

As people put off and increasingly forgo having children altogether, and women, especially, give up their powerful place in the family as the natural dispensers of empathic response toward infants, we find ourselves in a new place in history. Peterson wonders if women sometimes now unconsciously extend empathy in more public and official roles, wishing to appease the immediate cry perhaps without enough consideration for the long term consequences of hasty solutions for all, based on the spotlight experiences of a few or even one. 

Inspired as they are by the moving story of the sufferer, and wishing to appease the pain empathy has created inside themselves, they become social justice warriors to compensate for the lost opportunities motherhood might have offered. And I further speculate that, not having to live with the consequences of indulged children nearby — since they are increasingly raised by other people — these moderns have not learned to recognize empathy’s darker side.

In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Dr Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianov further suggest that this overweaning empathic response could be contributing to the polarizing political dialogue we see around us, which seems to be forever responding to the cries of self-designated victims, even when dividing the world into victims and perpetrators makes things worse.

Bloom, Peterson, Haidt and Lukianov agree that as our old media systems die and tend toward more and more sensational news stories which spotlight a particular sufferer, we can probably expect more laws with names, and more policies that assuage the pain of the moment with little thought to the consequences for the greater community and the long term.  These are the ravages of empathy gone too far. 

Katherine Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Western Pennsylvania.

Katherine Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Pennsylvania.