Against Empathy

The following article in this week’s New Yorker by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has been circulating in social networks:

The Baby in the Well: The Case Against Empathy

Despite what many of us on this blog might initially wonder, the title of the paper does not refer to Mencius’s famous thought experiment.  (Instead, it refers to the famous case of an actual child in a well that led to a worldwide media circus in the 1980s.)  Nonetheless, the article may be of interest to those of us working in Confucian ethics and moral psychology.

Specifically, the article’s claims about the limits of empathy are germane to the Confucian ideal of graded love/concern.  There is also discussion of how empathy can lead us to make moral judgments or support social policies that, upon reflection, are ill-advised.  Empathy is a powerful and important moral emotion, but it can also draw our attention away from more important issues to (comparatively) less important, particular cases.

These issues will be familiar to most of us, but the article is worth a read nonetheless.  (The article also contains at least one obviously ungrammatical sentence.  Can you spot it?)


3 replies on “Against Empathy”

  1. Thanks Hagop! An interesting and edifying piece. A few thoughts:

    It’s one thing to care more about someone more if she is closer; it’s another thing to care so much more that one or a few close people trump a world of farther people.

    Youzi offers an argument for such trumping that is arguably grounded in the value of the farther people (LY 1.2; cf. 1.12, 1.13).

    Viscerally we should in general be more concerned about those close to us; and this is the generally beneficial pattern. I think these two ideas are largely uncontroversial, which suggests that it is wrong to call them Confucian, or Mohist, or Utilitarian.

    Someone might advocate graded concern on a fundamental level. That’s ambiguous in at least 3 ways, of which the most interesting is the third:

    a. The whole fundamental, or just one of the fundamentals?
    b. Fundamental to ethics, or fundamental to concern for people?
    c. Is the fundamental (and graded) thing supposed to be concern for specific individuals, or something else? (And if I know the name of the person in the well, is that sufficient to make my concern a concern for her specifically?)

    We develop our affective dispositions partly by conditioning, partly by imagination, partly by getting stroked or kicked back or paid for our labor, etc. So there are various ways in which one can come to have the trait of finding uncomfortable any nascent intention to key someone’s car, or to use the n-word, or to lie. Are such traits ever concern? Or empathy? Or seeing events as others do? Three very different things.

    I claimed above that it is largely uncontroversial that viscerally we should care more for those close to us. But footbinding is an interesting case. If an advocate of graded visceral concern and/or empathy could tolerate people’s binding their daughters’ feet — if not as a general social practice, then at least as a personal response to general social practices –, then perhaps that could only be, as Manyul has suggested, because of the importance of the girls’ marrying (into high society). But in order to tolerate it, the serious advocate of graded visceral concern/empathy might need a reason for a focus on near people that does not similarly support a focus on the near term.

    What would such a reason be?

  2. A problem I have with the term ‘graded concern’ is that it can suggest a view that is just like classical utilitarianism except that it weights people differently (in an agent-relative way). This view would face, I suppose, pretty much all the kinds of objection that are brought against classical utilitarianism, but would lack the appearance of abstract plausibility.

  3. Bloom writes, “In this sense, empathy is an instinctive mirroring of others’ experience…”

    This formula, and the James Bond example that follows, could mislead one into thinking that self-cultivation and active imagination aren’t important sources of empathy. Bloom uses the word “instinctive” because his point is that while empathy isn’t one of our five senses, still under certain conditions it seems more or less automatic, as hearing is. The problem with the word “instinctive” is that it suggests that we cannot train the faculty’s strength, sophistication, and aim. But maybe we can. Bloom acknowledges this point in the abstract, but focuses on ways in which we can decrease our empathy, as though decrease were the main direction in which we could intervene, as it is in the case of our limbs.

    Bloom says of some books, “they enthusiastically champion an increase in empathy as a cure for humanity’s ills. This enthusiasm may be misplaced, however. Empathy has some unfortunate features—it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.” For we have more empathy for people in wells than for all future generations.

    Bloom’s argument seems to be: the public’s empathy is stupid, so empathy is inherently stupid. As though the possibility of cultivation weren’t worth taking into account.

    What’s really going on with the public and the well-babies? Is it really empathy for the well-babies? If we take these cases as displaying basic doohickeys of human psychology, I suspect the main relevant doohickey is a desire to be on the same page as all the other viewers; being virtually accepted by the crowd. Empathy with the crowd in contemplation of oneself? And then the problem might be the mass media as organs of the public’s corporate self-cultivation.

    The solution worth pointing to wouldn’t be, let’s have less empathy. But the more basic point might be right: that sheer quantity of empathy isn’t the key.

    * * *

    It is natural enough to think that “concern” is basically for people, for their well-being. It is not as natural, I think, to think that “empathy” pertains to others’ well-being. It pertains to their feelings.

    I think the alleged concept of individual well-being is a bit of a myth.

    As compared to “Smith’s feelings,” the notion of “Smith’s well-being” is much more heavily dependent on issues about the overall nature and functioning of Smith.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.