I think of myself as being not particularly empathic. I suspect that's a big reason why I don't enjoy mainstream literary fiction; I just don't care about the travails of ordinary people in ordinary situations. In consequence, I'm predisposed to like a book a title like this.
Surprise: I liked it. Against Empathy is, as you'd expect, thought-provoking. It raises important questions. Bloom's argument, in a nutshell, is that empathy is an emotion; that, like all emotions, it's subjective; that it misleads us as often as not; and that reasoned kindness is better than instinctive kindness. The empathic response of a KKK member, for example, is to favor a white over a black person. Even for those of us in the non-white-sheet-wearing-classes, empathy warps our decision making; that's why we don't do much to stop things like genocides in Rwanda and famines in Sudan.
On the other hand, I'm not convinced that Against Empathy is as strong or as well-thought-out as Paul Bloom thinks it is. First, he spends too much time qualifying his alleged position. Second, some of his arguments are, shall we say, open to refutation.
To begin with, to make his argument Bloom has to make a very precise definition of what he means by "empathy". He's talking, specifically, about the feeling that something that's happening to someone else is happening to you. If you cringe and whimper when someone else describes his painful root canal, that's Bloomian empathy.
Bloom argues for the distinction by separating empathy from sympathy and/or compassion. If a small child is terrified of the sound of thunder (he would say), I am not myself terrified--I do not feel empathy--but that doesn't mean I can't be sympathetic.
As a person with a scientific background, I applaud the desire to define terms exactly. This particular hair, however, is being split exceedingly finely. Maybe I'm not afraid of the thunder, but that doesn't mean I've never been irrationally terrified of something. The echo of that fear is what I feel, and it's that echo that brings me to feel compassion. The difference--arguably, at least--is of degree rather than of kind.
Then there's the imprecision in Bloom's term "rational compassion." A truly rational person would not be compassionate. To act in a genuinely compassionate manner is to do something that is against your own self-interest. This is never rational. The motivations that Bloom cites for behavior that he admires are, again, just watered-down versions of the empathy he's arguing against.
Finally, there's a double standard going on here. Bloom makes both of these arguments
- Empathy is something that we humans don't do well. We shouldn't rely on it.
- Reasoning is something that we humans don't do well. We should strive to do it better.
OK. Only . . . why bother? I'm the very last person to cast doubt on the merits of rationalism, but there's nothing that's obviously privileged about moral issues when it comes to thinking clearly. To assert that it's especially important that we overcome our innate illogic in the case of moral and ethical decisions is simply to say that Paul Bloom has emotively assigned a high value to moral and ethical decisions. I have to suppose that that's because he feels that these decisions are especially important (as, to be fair, I feel as well). You see where this is going, don't you?
Closely related: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2017/02/22/on-the-matter-of-empathy-for-horrible-people/