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Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

por Paul Bloom

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279772,655 (3.19)3
New York Post Best Book of 2016 We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. Many of our wisest policy-makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don't have enough of it. Nothing could be farther from the truth, argues Yale researcher Paul Bloom. In AGAINST EMPATHY, Bloom reveals empathy to be one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices. It muddles our judgment and, ironically, often leads to cruelty. We are at our best when we are smart enough not to rely on it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion. Basing his argument on groundbreaking scientific findings, Bloom makes the case that some of the worst decisions made by individuals and nations--who to give money to, when to go to war, how to respond to climate change, and who to imprison--are too often motivated by honest, yet misplaced, emotions. With precision and wit, he demonstrates how empathy distorts our judgment in every aspect of our lives, from philanthropy and charity to the justice system; from medical care and education to parenting and marriage. Without empathy, Bloom insists, our decisions would be clearer, fairer, and--yes--ultimately more moral. Brilliantly argued, urgent and humane, AGAINST EMPATHY shows us that, when it comes to both major policy decisions and the choices we make in our everyday lives, limiting our impulse toward empathy is often the most compassionate choice we can make.… (mais)
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Mostrando 1-5 de 7 (seguinte | mostrar todos)
Interesting discussion of the drawbacks of using empathy in moral decision-making. ( )
  AstonishingChristina | May 27, 2021 |
Really more like 3.5. Like his last book (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17380034-just-babies), this one has a provocative title that almost immediately turns into something less than it purports. The author is against Empathy, but not all empathy or at least only empathy that is defined in a way that he wants it to be. He has a reasonable definition but it may not be what most people think of as empathy. Ultimately he has a point, but again, like the last book, he refers to a rationalism that he puts forward with almost a religious furor. It is still worth reading for some good thought-provoking ideas. ( )
  Skybalon | Mar 19, 2020 |
Imagine an entire book written critiquing empathy--written by a psychologist, no less--that doesn't once mention attachment theory or the importance of that close atunement by a caregiver during a child's formative years for psychological development.

This will give you an idea of the considerable gaps in reasoning in this book that purports to demonstrate how importance reasoning (paired with compassion rather than empathy) is to proper moral decision making.

A selection of other, similar gaps:

p. 106: argument that it doesn't matter to a starving child if they are given food by a smiling face or if the food is dropped by a drone. Of course it matters. Raise your hand if you see no difference between birthday presents dropped off by drone rather than delivered by the smiling faces of your friends and family. People, particularly children, need to know that they are important and that they matter to people *as people*, and this is hardly communicated by a drone drop.

The entire bit just before that about the kid who got a job on wall street so he could make large donations to the poor. While this is obviously an improvement over getting a job on wall street so you can buy a yacht, it does--contrary to Bloom's conclusion-without-support--makes things worse for the global poor. The investment machine that Wall Street powers is directly, intimately and daily linked to the actions of global companies who deprive people of land, food, and their lives. He can't possibly be ignorant of this; it smacks of cherry-picking.

p. 107: He dismisses the claim that literature increases empathy, completely ignoring the scientific research that demonstrate that it does.

p. 126: He argues that working on climate changes has nothing to do with empathy, as there are no identifiable Others with which to empathize. This book was written in America in 2016. At that time, California was experiencing the worst drought of its history, fueled by climate change. The Syrian refugee crisis, spurred in large part by a climate-change drought in the north of the country, was raging at that time. Both crises dominated the news with pictures of drowned toddlers, boats full of desperate people with nowhere to go, etc. No identifiable others? What planet was Bloom living on?

I work in climate change. This is not a "pale statistical abstraction" for me, but is daily fueled by the impacts I know this is having on people, animals and landscapes.

p. 154: Parenting. Here is where you would think attachment theory would make an appearance. Nope! Instead he makes a curious argument (repeated throughout the book) that empathy uniquely enslaves people and makes it impossible to consider how to respond using reason. I'll come back to this.

p. 183-185: Psychopaths! Here, Bloom argues by aphorism. That is, he includes quotes by famous people asserting that a thing must be so, without providing evidence, and then concludes that indeed it is so. Eg. a quote from Steven Pinker about how crimes and violence committed in the name of morality "would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral conquest and predation," and accepts this statement as fact. Oh? Give us a statistic, Bloom. Give us some numbers with a source.

You might think he'd have something to say here about the legendary lack of empathy in psychopaths. Nope!

p. 232: IQ tests! "A long time ago people said things like 'IQ tests just measure how good you are at doing IQ tests,' but nobody takes this seriously anymore." (This in an argument about how IQ tests measure the potential for life success, as some kind of corollary argument for reason or reasoning ability--he never clarifies the connection he tries to draw here.) So I typed that phrase--IQ tests just measure how good you are at taking IQ tests--into google, and found this article from 2017 https://theconversation.com/the-iq-test-wars-why-screening-for-intelligence-is-s... and this from 2014 https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/what-do-iq-tests-test-inter... . Seems like the conversation over the utility of IQ tests continues to rage on, Paul.

Not to mention that describing IQ tests as good arbiters of reasoning ability, and claiming that no one questions this anymore, without discussing the differing results between different demographic groups and how completely obvious it is that privilege and material well-being factor into higher IQ scores--is racist and sexist.

p. 234: "I said that if you were curious about what sort of person a child would grow up to be, an intelligence test would be a great measure." Fun! So, I was in a gifted program from grade 4-grade 13/OAC, said program based on the results of universally administered aptitude/IQ tests within the schools. Everyone I went to school with did extremely well on IQ tests, within the top 1-2 percentile.

Yes, there are neurosurgeons and professors and lawyers within that group of people.

There are also highschool and university drop-outs who have spent their entire adult lives bewailing how unfairly life has treated them because they are GENIUSES goddammit and they DESERVE better.

So.

Later on he talks about the importance of self-control and how well this was demonstrated in the infamous Marshmallow Test.

Which has now been debunked as a measure of affluence rather than willpower. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/06/marshmallow-test/561779/

p. 238: Here he talks about how good people are at reasoning in every day matters such as whether to buy a house or local politics such as zoning regulations. "My own experience is that the level of rational discourse here is high," he says.

Dear Lord. Apparently Paul Bloom, alone among North American adults, has never heard of NIMBYism. As an environmental professional now for a few decades, let me state categorically that the level of rational discourse in local political and planning matter is abysmal, and emotion plays an enormous role in the conclusions people draw. I used to work in wind energy and read a study at that time showing that people who claimed negative health impacts from a local wind farm were almost certain to be able to see it from a window in their house; didn't matter how far away it was or whether they could hear it or not.

And keep in mind that Mr. Bloom wrote the sentences defending the rationality of everyday Americans in whether or not to purchase a house in 2016, a mere 8 years after the mortgage crisis.

So this is a small collection of my "Oh my god you have got to be kidding me" moments from reading this book, but you might be wondering about the overall argument.

I picked up the book on the strength of Kate Manne's mentioning of it in her book Down Girl, where she writes of his claim that empathy is "biased and innumerate": that is, that the empathy we feel reflects our own biases, and favours the one over the many. Manne then expands on this to discuss how empathy flows up the social hierarchy, and our society's tendency to, for example, express empathy towards perpetrators ("this allegation will destroy his career!") over victims.

That was the best part of Against Empathy, and having read it, you can probably skip the rest of the book. On the strength of it, I gave it two stars rather than one.

But its weaknesses are many. A short list:

1. The definition of empathy changes on every page to be whatever Bloom needs it to be in order to dismiss it. At the beginning of the book, empathy can be directed towards groups at a distance: he uses the example of the Sandy Hook massacre. At the end of the book, empathy can only be triggered in direct proximity to one or a small group of people who are directly emoting in your presence. At the beginning, again as with the Sandy Hook example, the empathy inspired isn't directly feeling exactly what the other person is feeling--he wouldn't and doesn't claim he feels the same rage and grief as the children's parents do--but at the end it is direct and exact mirroring, and only this mirroring, that counts as empathy. I could go on.

2. Of course, any emotion or capacity joined to Reason is going to be superior to any emotion or capacity specifically entirely unconnected to Reason, so saying Compassion Reason is a better guide to moral decision making than Empathy Alone is ... obvious. Let's experiment: Anger Reason is better than Love Alone (think: people stalking the object of their romantic obsession, people using anger plus critical reasoning to advance social causes). Shame Reason is better than Happiness Alone (research showing that the single-minded pursuit of happiness is linked with selfishness and moral deterioration; the capacity of reasoning one's way out of shame to restore social bonds and inspire moral improvement). Hate Reason is better than Joy Alone (I have to admit that this is a tricky one, but I think a person who can reason about their hate can identify bridges that needed burning and separate themselves from destructive people and relationships much better than people who think any sign of hate is a moral failing; and Joy, if it comes at another's expense and is expressed without consideration of that fact, could be hurtful).

We should simply assume and act as if all of our capacities are better when we can reason them through.

3. He never explains why empathy is so impossible to reason through; he simply states that he himself can't do it, and then seems to assume that no one else can either. But of course empathy can join with Reason; an effective parent will do so as a matter of daily course. He brings up an example of how empathy would make a parent unable to subject their child to vaccinations because of the pain from the needle, but this is nonsense. Empathy simply makes it easier for the parent to understand and respond to the child's pain and confusion afterwards. Compassion wouldn't cut it.

My daughter has a genetic syndrome that was only diagnosed when she was nearly 14. She had many, many tests beginning in infancy to try to diagnose it. I will never forget the first, when she was a tiny baby, about 5 lbs at the time, and it took me and two nurses to pin her down while they drew blood from her little arms. And I wept while she screamed, in her confusion and pain and fear. It did not stop me from getting her tested. It did provide a break of balancing the pain of any given test from the benefit of whatever knowledge we expected to gain from it, which is what happens when empathy is joined with reason.

4. All feelings have a purpose. We are creatures who evolved, and we share these feelings with many of our non-human relatives; they have adaptive and survival value or they wouldn't exist. Any argument that tries to do away with any particular feeling must, I believe, acknowledge and understand the value that exists before a coherent and convincing argument can be made against it. This goes for the Dalai Lama's incessant harping against anger, Brene Brown's wholly unconvincing dismissal of shame, and it goes here for Paul Bloom's devaluation of empathy.

5. He repeatedly insists that the idea that people are incapable of truly reasoning is baseless, without providing any convincing argument against the vast evidence--never mentioned--that human reasoning ability is inextricably connected with emotion. That neurologically people are incapable of reaching conclusions without emotions. His argument reflects an unearned faith in the existence of One True Reasonable Conclusion for any argument; of course, there isn't one. This isn't, as he claims, a dismissal of Reason; it's an admission of its limitations and its inherent dependency on our emotional responses. We reason using thoughts and feelings, and any reasoned conclusions is partially dependent on feelings which must be admitted to and explored as part of a reasoned exploration. There are plenty of people out there who claim that there beliefs that the earth is flat, that climate change is a hoax, that vaccines cause autism, etc. are reasoned arguments based on evidence, which they clearly are not. His own book would have been better if he himself had done so.

On page 10, Bloom lists his main influences for his argument against empathy and for reason:

Richard Davidson
Sam Harris (article about his assertion that black americans score lower on IQ tests because they are less intelligent here: https://www.vox.com/2018/4/9/17210248/sam-harris-ezra-klein-charles-murray-trans...)
Jesse Prinz
Peter Singer (disabled humans not persons; adult gorillas are persons; apparently supports the rights of parents to kill their disabled children? http://web.archive.org/web/20170307001948/http:/www.martlet.ca/protesters-crash-...)
Michael Lynch
Michael Shermer (multiple accusations of sexual assault: https://www.buzzfeed.com/markoppenheimer/will-misogyny-bring-down-the-atheist-mo...)

Hrm.

What kinds of conclusions do you think a person is going to reach with influences like these?

Let's ignore the fact that they are all white, able-bodied, male, and with the exception of one, straight.

Let's consider that this list is 50% known unrepentant asshole.

Essentially, Paul Bloom sets up a straw man of unconstrained empathy without the benefit of any reasoning counterbalance and spends about 240 pages pummeling it with half-facts and anecdotes. ( )
  andrea_mcd | Mar 10, 2020 |
We Homo sapiens are by default compassionate animals. This is our basic evolutionary drive. I believe the landscape that the author described in the book about the rational society is a myth. We Homo sapiens are not rational civil intellectuals, rather empathetic animals. And we currently have been evolving for 350,000 years. I estimate that, sure, we are heading to a more and more rational civilization, but 350,000 years is still too short for an advanced developed civilization. We are, after all, an average species on an average planet. But why against compassion. We are actually doing really great under this "not-quite-rational-but-very-compassionate" world.

No matter how the society evolves, the compassionate ones always have comparative advantage in survival. I will always stand on the "The Age of Empathy" (Frans de Waal) side. ( )
  Rex_Lui | Sep 12, 2019 |
It's an expanded collection of articles. I like the thesis of the book but I found it too long and boring. That's why it took so much time to read it ( )
  lucaconti | Jan 24, 2019 |
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New York Post Best Book of 2016 We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. Many of our wisest policy-makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don't have enough of it. Nothing could be farther from the truth, argues Yale researcher Paul Bloom. In AGAINST EMPATHY, Bloom reveals empathy to be one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices. It muddles our judgment and, ironically, often leads to cruelty. We are at our best when we are smart enough not to rely on it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion. Basing his argument on groundbreaking scientific findings, Bloom makes the case that some of the worst decisions made by individuals and nations--who to give money to, when to go to war, how to respond to climate change, and who to imprison--are too often motivated by honest, yet misplaced, emotions. With precision and wit, he demonstrates how empathy distorts our judgment in every aspect of our lives, from philanthropy and charity to the justice system; from medical care and education to parenting and marriage. Without empathy, Bloom insists, our decisions would be clearer, fairer, and--yes--ultimately more moral. Brilliantly argued, urgent and humane, AGAINST EMPATHY shows us that, when it comes to both major policy decisions and the choices we make in our everyday lives, limiting our impulse toward empathy is often the most compassionate choice we can make.

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