This post first appeared on P4H Global’s Redefining Aid blog.
I recently came across a book titled “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” written by the Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom, and I am convinced that it needs to be added to a list of must-read books for anyone interested in international development. Below I summarize a few of the main arguments that Bloom makes for the case against empathy, along with my thoughts on how these arguments align with a better vision for international development.
Bloom defines empathy as “the act of feeling what you believe other people feel — experiencing what they experience” (pg. 3). It’s important to distinguish this from morality, kindness and compassion, Bloom argues. Those are all important traits that make the world a better place. Empathy, on the other hand, is a trait that often motivates actions that are immoral and lead to poor outcomes.
“Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now. This makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with. Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism. It is shortsighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future. It is innumerate, favoring the one over the many. It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others.” (pg. 9)
The first argument against empathy is that is acts like a spotlight. It does a wonderful job of illuminating what it is pointed at but leaves everything else in the dark. The problem is that we rarely point our spotlights in the directions that need our attention the most. Think about your reaction to seeing a picture of a poor child — we are laser-focused on that individual, and will do anything to alleviate her suffering, including actions that will make her entire community worse in the long run.
“Empathy is like a spotlight directing attention and aid to where it’s needed. But spotlights have a narrow focus, and this is one problem with empathy. It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future. Further, spotlights only illuminate what they are pointed at, so empathy reflects our biases. Although we might intellectually believe that the suffering of our neighbor is just as awful as the suffering of someone living in another country, its far easier to empathize with those who are close to us, those who are similar to us… In this regard, empathy distorts our moral judgements in pretty much the same way that prejudice does.” (pg. 31)
A second argument for why empathy falls short in our lives is that is biased and innumerate. It reflects our deepest biases and fails to equate the value of different human lives. Think of how you handled finding out about two distinct events i) the Sandy Hook school shooting that killed 26 people in 2012, and ii) the mass bombings that killed over 320 people in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 2019. Which event captured more of your attention, emotion and desire to help alleviate suffering? I’m sure we all have the same answer to this question, and that is why our empathy can’t be trusted.
“…reactions to others, including our empathic reactions, reflect prior bias, preference and judgement. This shows that it can’t be that empathy simply makes us moral…because whether or not you feel empathy depends on prior decisions about who to worry about, who counts, who matters…” (pg. 70)
“This effect also illustrates something more general about our natural sentiments, which is that they are innumerate. If our concern is driven by thoughts of the suffering of specific individuals, then it sets up a perverse situation in which the suffering of one can matter more than the suffering of a thousand.” (pg. 89)
Most importantly for this blog, there is a strong case that empathy not only prevents us from doing good, but often causes us to harm those we wish to help. If empathy is the driving force behind detrimental aid, rational compassion is the cure to it.
“…if the world were a simple place, where the only dilemmas one had to deal with involved a single person in some sort of immediate distress, and where helping that person had positive effects, the case for empathy would be solid. But the world is not a simple place. Often — very often…— the action that empathy motivates is not what is morally right.” (pg. 85)
“But doing actual good, instead of just doing what feels good, requires dealing with complex issues and being mindful of exploitation… To do so, you need to step back and not fall into empathy traps. The conclusion is not that one shouldn’t give, but rather that one should give intelligently, with an eye toward consequences.” (pg. 101)
If we want to make real progress in the fight against global poverty, we need to redefine aid, and in doing so shift our empathy to compassion and our hearts to our minds. I highly recommend reading the book for yourself, but for now, I’ll leave you with this:
“If you are struggling with a moral decision and find yourself trying to feel someone else’s pain or pleasure, you should stop. This empathic engagement might give you some satisfaction, but it’s not how to improve things and can lead us to bad outcomes. Much better to use reason and cost-benefit analysis drawing on a more distanced compassion and kindness.” (pg. 39)