Several days ago, I happened upon a video called “Against Empathy”, by Paul Bloom… it’s a promotional video for a book of the same name, which I would guess is probably an interesting read, but I have not read. I am coming at this mostly as my intellectual response to what is in this video after letting it simmer for several days.
That said, I feel it is important for you to watch the video before proceeding, and so I am including it here:
After initially feeling that I simultaneously agreed with most of what he was saying but being a bit put off by the idea that empathy is altogether bad, I began to suspect that he’s not really saying the latter. He is challenging the notion that empathy should be the highest good or our absolute guiding star. I expect that in the book he probably more elaborately explains that… the video here is meant to be a bit more provocative. That said, there is a lot worth addressing here.
The idea that putting yourself in the shoes of another, and acting on feeling their pain can blind you to the long-term consequences of your actions to better their situation is one that has gotten us into a number of quandaries in the political realm. Not the least of which are the wars he mentions in the video. But just look at what we got with Obamacare. By any objective standard it has failed, but a lot of people will read that and respond emotionally saying “but more people have health insurance!” True, but is the insurance worth a damn? I’m not saying there are no individuals who are better off than they were before, but for the most part, people are paying more money than they should be for less care than they should be getting. We have the system we have (and even what we had before Obamacare) because of empathy. And it’s garbage. (As an aside, we should have a system where insurance is fully optional, and most people would simply purchase catastrophic health insurance… and pay for things like doctor visits and generic medications out-of-pocket. When you get insurance companies out of the equation and doctors need to compete, watch how fast prices drop.)
I actually really like his example of the level of care we give to something like a baby trapped in a well vs something like climate change… and it brings to mind the quote: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic,” which may or may not have been uttered by Stalin. In terms of how the human mind processes it, there is truth there. Small-scale, relatable issues, especially if they are close to home, are what we tend to feel the most empathic about. This causes us to misdirect our efforts. We spend all our resources trying to get a few babies out of the well rather than directing them toward things that are actually much more likely to effect us all.
Warm glow altruism is another major problem, not only as it relates to charity, but as it relates to politics. People choose their activism based on what makes them feel good. And so if they can find a person who claims to be oppressed, defending that people gives them that endorphin rush they’re looking for. I’m not going to call out anything specific here, but the oppression olympics that is American politics needs to stop.
At one point in the video, he calls empathy “selfish moralizing”. I can’t help but draw a parallel here to the Randian ideology of Objectivism. To Rand, all people act out of selfishness, and even an act of love is one made out of self-interest. (If you’re curious, I find objectivism fascinating and think there is often truth in it, but, I certainly don’t agree with Rand on all points). I do think that is what is happening here. It feels good to react to everything according to your emotions and simply let them be your guiding star. However, what feels right is not always the best thing. What feels right may be illogical. What feels right may be harmful in the long-term. Doing what is best for people may not feel as good as doing something that seems good but is unsustainable.
Empathy has a place in our mind. In terms of day-to-day how we treat people, we should definitely still follow that golden rule. However, empathy can’t be our highest standard. We need to temper our empathy with logic and reason, and be cold-blooded when we need to be. Sometimes the best thing for someone is to not give them what they want. It can be hard, especially if it is someone close to you, but it’s worth it in the end.