The Case Against Empathy

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In this interview for Vox, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom provides a critical perspective on empathy and explains why empathy may be harmful in the long run.

“My beef is with empathy in particular, with its role in decision making. Empathy has certain design features that do make it positive in certain restricted circumstances. If you and I are the only people on earth and you’re in pain and I can help you and make your pain go away, and I feel empathy toward you and so I make your life better, empathy has done something good. But the real world is nowhere near as simple. Empathy’s design failings have to do with the fact that it acts like a spotlight. It zooms you in. But spotlights only illuminate where you point them at, and for that reason empathy is biased.

I’m likely to feel empathy toward you, a handsome white guy, but somebody who is repulsive or frightening I don’t feel empathy for. I actually feel a lot less empathy for people who aren’t in my culture, who don’t share my skin color, who don’t share my language. This is a terrible fact of human nature, and it operates at a subconscious level, but we know that it happens. There’s dozens, probably hundreds, of laboratory experiments looking at empathy and they find that empathy is as biased as can be.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. So I agree, we need more compassion because empathy is deeply flawed. If we can only empathize with those like us, then empathy is a real problem. There were three terrorist attacks last week (that I know of), one in Manchester (22 killed, 58 injured), one in London (7 dead, 48 injured), and one in Kabul (90 dead, over 400 injured). On Instagram, there are hashtags for each. The #prayformanchester hashtag has over 500,000 posts. #prayforlondon has over 150,000. #prayforkabul has a little over 6,500.

    And what is the response to these attacks? Well, I doubt the military is going to start drone bombing British neighborhoods to root out the terror cells like they do in Afghanistan and other middle eastern countries.

    I have believed for a while that this lack of being able to feel the pain and hardship of people we don’t identify with is actually feeding the war on terror. We bomb brown countries and then are surprised when they send suicide bombers to white places?

    And seriously, when is the US government going to start drone bombing alt-right hate rallies to get rid of those terrorists? Wait, that won’t happen. They are white.

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