The Limits of Empathy


Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy was bound to be either advocacy for cruelty and sadism, or a horribly misguided attempt to improve the world, or false advertising (it would turn out he’s only against the most narrowly or bizarrely defined concept of empathy), or genuinely interesting. It turns out to be a combination of the last two, plus a third part made up of numerous lengthy but tangentially related topics — some of them also interesting.

The book’s subtitle is “The Case for Rational Compassion.” Bloom is not against thinking through how others might feel about or be impacted by actions. He’s against the process of actually trying to feel what one imagines others would feel. Except that he’s not against it, he’s only against too much of it. He’s against the fairly strawmanish position that one ought to engage in feeling empathy 24/7, that one ought to engage in no other mental processes, that thinking about things coolly is of zero value, and so on.

Much of what Bloom has to say seems valuable, though I don’t think as much of it is related to empathy as he does, and I don’t think he’s followed his own guidance.

When Bloom blames empathy for racism and parochialism, I think he ought to save some criticism for racism and parochialism. Imagining how someone very different from yourself may feel could be difficult, prone to error, and a million miles away from being the only thing needed to direct moral behavior; it could also be helpful, just as imagining how someone very close to you might feel could be helpful. I suspect many proponents of empathy actually mean to encourage and prioritize the more difficult acts of empathy over the easier ones. Bloom points out, however, that this can mean first thinking one’s way to caring about people and only then feeling empathy for them.

When Bloom blames empathy for violence and vengeance, I think he should reserve some criticism for the culture in which he is writing and thinking which treats such bad choices as inevitable and acceptable and praiseworthy. Far less violent cultures have probably not engaged in less empathy.

When Bloom points out the difficulty of empathizing with the billions of people impacted by major political decisions, he is either making the obvious point that one needs to think morally and consequentialistly and not merely empathize for hours, or he is making the more dubious claim that one will be able to do such thinking as well or better if one has never empathized with anyone in any way. The rest of his book makes clear that he is not making the latter point. He does, however, go on to make the interesting observation that in thinking about large-scale policy what’s needed is not something closer to empathy for millions of strangers but something less like empathy for those closest to you, so as to put those you love on the same level as others.

Bloom does, however, make a data-based case that those who engage in more empathy do not tend to be significantly better people — or, rather, that no definitive proof of that has been offered, and possibly could not be short of us agreeing on what a better person is. (I disagree with some of what Bloom takes to be strictly uncontroversial on this point, as I’ll come to shortly.)

When Bloom blames empathy for parochialism, he has a partial point, I think. He says that news media focus on one little girl in a well rather than on events affecting millions. He might have said they focus on fictional tales of babies taken out of incubators rather than on the endless death and suffering that will result from a war and the subsequent wars. But, even while Bloom coolly asserts that it is more difficult for a white person to empathize with a black person, he simply assumes that thinking about a little girl in a well (or babies in an incubator) is an act of empathy. But who knows exactly what it’s like to be those beings? Surely it’s easier for an adult to empathize with another adult with a different color of skin than with a small child or an infant. I think there are degrees of empathy, some of them closer to compassion (the more pensive process Bloom favors), and that the problem here is not empathy but lack of moral character and discipline, failure (whether by news producers or viewers) to properly prioritize the larger problem impacting many people over the smaller problem impacting one person about whom you’ve been told some details.

Bloom blames empathy for people falling for the Willie Horton ad, because a policy that reduced crime overall resulted in particular victims with whom people empathized. I’m not sure that what people were feeling wasn’t fear and racism and hatred. The ad didn’t show us any victims or tell us any details about them. It showed us Willie Horton and advocated for the death penalty — a position that seems to me to require a shutting down of empathy. In any case, the problems seem to be small-mindedness, thoughtless passion, acceptance of vengeance and violence, and racism — any of which may overlap with or interact with empathy, or may not.

In fact, Bloom makes clear that he’s in favor of “cognitive empathy,” that is, of thinking about what others might experience, as distinct from merely trying to imaginatively experience what others might experience. What he’s against is thoughtlessness.

We’re told that Donald Trump’s daughter showed him videos of children suffering in Syria, which persuaded him to bomb Syria and cause lots more children to suffer. But we’re told that Bobby Kennedy backed wise and good policies after seeing children suffer. Bloom would point out that for every good story there’s a bad one, but the reverse is also true. If someone combines empathy with wisdom, I have no complaint with empathy (or compassion, or cognitive empathy, or caring about particular people under whatever banner).

Should we blame empathy for the horribly inefficient and corrupt work of many charities? I blame thoughtlessness, gullibility, greed, and arrogance.

What I find most valuable in Bloom’s book is his advocacy for reasoned thought. I’ve long found it endlessly frustrating to be told that people must be “humanized” before we can do anything to help them. What, I’ve always wondered, are they prior to being humanized?

Another bit of thoughtlessness, or anti-thoughtfulness, that I think grows out of a focus on empathy is the common assertion that empathy is impossible. “Unless you’ve been a victim of this or look like me, you can never understand.” This is harmful nonsense. People have amazing capacities to understand. People understand fictional characters stranger than any real ones.

But parochialism is the big problem coming out of the cluster of issues Bloom writes about. People are shown images and stories of refugee families separated by the U.S. government, and they care, and they act. But will they oppose the military and economic policies that play such a major role in forcing people to become refugees? If they were shown images and stories of bombing victims, then would they? Is monopolistic cartel control of mass media possibly a larger moral problem than too much or too little empathy? Why do people hate and take pride in what they falsely imagine to be a massive amount of non-weapon foreign aid? Why do even peace activists demand to “bring our war dollars home,” as if what’s wrong with a war is principally that it costs money, and as if it isn’t enough money to transform people’s lives both at home and abroad? To any extent that an overemphasis on the power of empathy is to blame, I’m for scaling it back.

And I’m certainly against proudly accepting it. We now have a culture in which it’s acceptable for a Congressman to oppose war funding because his brother died in a war, but not to do so because the current war will kill lots of other people’s brothers. It’s deemed respectable to give a personal and emotional justification for an action, but not a reasoned one. That needs to change.

I said that Bloom hasn’t followed his own guidance. Perhaps that’s not to be expected. One study concluded that there is nothing particularly ethical about the behavior of ethics professors. Perhaps that can be extended to other professors who write about ethics. Bloom announces behaviors he engages in, as though he knows they are immoral, but wants to make sure we see him as normal or don’t feel uncomfortably challenged in any way. For example: “I eat meat.” In the same book he addresses climate change as a major problem requiring more than empathy. I’d say it also requires more than complacency.

Bloom makes clear other immoral positions without as clearly recognizing them as such. He seems to believe it uncontroversial to claim that the proper question in a court of justice is not “What does the victim want?” but rather “What would I want if I or someone I cared about were in the position of the victim?” Whether this suggests that Bloom’s opposition to empathy leads him away from respecting the actual views of others is not my point here. Rather, I believe the proper question is “What will most benefit the whole society and those involved, generate restitution, facilitate reconciliation, and avoid additional unnecessary suffering, without encouraging the madness of revenge?” In other words, I think Bloom should stop and coolly reason a little.

Bloom speaks throughout the book of “the right sort of aggression,” “when going to war is the just decision,” “there are worse things than violence and war; sometimes the reprisal motivated by empathy makes the world a better place.” Of course, Bloom offers only one example of this, and it’s the predictable thought-free, fact-free whopper:

“Even if there were no other considerations, the United States would have been right to invade Germany to liberate camps such as Dachau.”

A reasoned look at the possibility of a just war finds that there can be no such thing. The facts of what happened in the 1940s make clear that the United States can’t have been right to invade Germany to liberate camps because it did no such thing. Liberating camps was not part of secret internal motivations in the U.S. government, not present in public speeches, not on a single propaganda poster. The United States led conferences like that at Evian uniting the world in refusing to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and for explicitly racist reasons, even as Hitler publicly offered to send them all anywhere on luxury cruise ships. The United States locked out the Jews. The Coast Guard chased a ship of Jewish refugees away from Miami, Florida. The State Department turned down Anne Frank’s family’s visa applications. Through the war, as peace activists begged the U.S. and British governments to negotiate the evacuation of the Jews, the response was always the same: we’re too busy fighting a war. No step, diplomatic, military, or as far as I know empathetic, was ever taken to liberate the camps until the war was over. By then, the war had killed many more people than were killed in the camps, so the obviousness of the assertion that a war to liberate the camps was right is dubious, but it’s primarily irrelevant because there was no war to liberate the camps. And more serious defenders of the supposed justness of U.S. entry into WWII and conduct during WWII don’t even deal in such mythology. But the U.S. public does, and it has consequences that we need to apply passionate and cool, emotional and wise thought to.


David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of and campaign coordinator for Swanson's books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at and He hosts Talk Nation Radio.He is a 2015, 2016, 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.

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