Against Empathy — Really?

pantanal wasps

Paper wasps — the Pantanal, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, 2006

Every now and again, folks send me stuff about empathy.  Such was the case with this piece below, a short animation published on the Atlantic ‘s website, and titled Against Empathy.  The video is put together by the animator, with content and narration by Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom.  It’s pretty short (less than 3 min.) and in it, Bloom equates empathy to selfish moralizing. In the course of the video, he knocks charitable giving, saying that empathy leads to people giving small amounts of money to lots of charity, which causes the various charities to lose money, instead of the ostensibly dispassionate, non-empathetic giver who is a more effective altruist.  Bloom goes on to say that charities don’t know what they’re doing in the context of fundraising (he knows, but not them) and that empathy is fundamentally impulsive and destroys consequential behavior.

There’s more — he also points to leaders psychopathically using empathy against us, and then says that having empathy starts wars, which end up in lots of people dying.  If we go to war against ISIS, he argues, it will be because of empathy and wanting to help the people in Syria.  But there will be many more victims than people save, and we essentially won’t care.

Oh boy.

I could spend a whole lot of time refuting point by point what Bloom says — but what’s more interesting is to dig beneath the surface and attempt to understand why he’s saying what he’s saying.  And that context is far more interesting than writing a long soliloquy on nuance in the context of Bloom’s argument.  At the same time, it’s important to spend just a little time with his various points so you don’t think I’m dodging the argument.  Here goes!

  1.  Bloom defines empathy as the rush you get from instantaneously connecting on an issue or thing that prompts impulsive behavior on your part.  There is no duplex information flow in Bloom’s definition — it’s just one way, and it’s all about you.
  2. Bloom is pretty clearly anti-agency for anyone but himself — at least in the context of his argument.  If you’re giving $5 to the Heifer Project, it’s not about helping the Heifer Project.  You’re an impulsive slave to instantaneous emotion (simplex again) and need to be told by your more rational betters how to give money.
  3. Not even charitable organizations know what the right thing to do — they are running fundraising strategies that must lose them money.  A more logical authority needs to tell them how to really help their cause.  There’s only one reason for doing what they’re doing when soliciting small donations — that is increasing the size of their bankroll — and they’re doing it wrong.
  4. Empathy causes war because it creates an in-group with people across the world who we ignorantly decide to save, and then we kill them through our good intentions.
  5. Therefore, empathy is bad, and you need to disconnect from people around the world if you really want to be a moral person.

What do I have to say on the topical information above?

  1.  Empathy is far more complex than a rush one gets in isolation.  It is all about connection, and doesn’t exist without another actor in the equation.  That’s not just my opinion — it’s all the other empathy researchers out there.  It is true that my empathy pyramid is my own representation of evolutionary empathy.  But it’s all based on stacking and arranging the research of others for a systemic and systematic perspective.  Bloom is being manipulative and conflating empathy with sympathy, and a defective, egocentric, potentially narcissistic sympathy at that.
  2. Even in low level v-Meme systems, empathy is a function of personal agency.  Higher forms of empathy require more agency, which means more filtering/resistance/data processing when an Expert from the Outside tells you what to do.  We’ll get around to talking about why Bloom might be doing what he’s doing below.  He is the Expert from the Outside — a professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. If you’re status-based, why should you believe me over him?  Or believe anyone besides him?
  3. There are many reasons that charities solicit small donations — chief among them for receiving large matching grants from foundations wanting those charities to expand their outreach and grow their donor pool. Some of it involves direct outreach and growing their member base that read their magazines and literature, which may come in handy in lobbying state governments in all their myriad forms.  There are literally thousands of reasons for NGOs to take loss leadership on one type of fundraising in exchange for social capital in another.  And Bloom brings no data showing that even his main point is even valid.  Even on the surface, his main point doesn’t hold up.  Organizations that lose money over time go out of business.  But he’s big on using his authority once again to get you to believe him, and deprive the NGOs of agency.  Time to remember W. Edwards Deming’s favorite statement — “In God we trust.  All others must bring data.”
  4. Vanishingly few wars are started by enlarging in-group dynamics to include the people we are attacking.  Nation-states start wars because their leadership have effectively created the target nation as an out-group that deserves whatever it gets.  We attacked Iraq because our government declared that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction.  Millions of people in the U.S. took to the streets to keep the Iraqi people inside the In-group, and NOT make war.  In the current situation with ISIS, attacks by Western powers are triggered by terrorist attacks, which create profound in-group/out-group dynamics that enable leaders to launch counter-attacks.  It is true that pleas for sympathy (not empathy) come from leaders of belligerents, but they are almost always ancillary to the real motive — a lack of empathetic connection to the population we are attacking.
  5. A perversion of the Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme is the moralism that says empathy is bad.  At some level, Bloom constructs his argument around the idea that empathy is as he has defined it — an impulsive, egocentric squirt of go juice in the limbic system — instead of the broader accepted definition of empathy, with mirroring behavior, affective and cognitive empathy that is used in the psychological community, or my evolutionary model that links all these things together.  Yet he is still using this to say that ‘this is connection’ . And by arguing against it, he causes a person who may want to do the right thing to mistrust their feelings and perceptions.  What that causes is, of course, a loss of agency, and a willingness to accept both the opinion of an authority, and the control that comes along with that.  Don’t trust your own mind.  Let your betters do the thinking for you.  Like him.

What is more interesting about this piece is not that argumentation and refutation.  What is far more interesting (at least to me!) is how he would construct the argument, and why he would say it.  That, of course, has to come out of his own brain wiring and the social/relational structure he resides in.  Once we understand that, we can understand him — and why he would make the argument is he is making.  And then you can decide whether you want to believe him or not.

To start, it’s pretty clear that Bloom is speaking with the voice of the Authoritarian v-Meme.  He’s the psychology professor at Yale, he went to school at MIT, he’s written a bunch of books, and as such, he gets to create definitions out of thin air.  He’s ensconced deeply inside an Authority-based system — not just any system, but one recognizable around the world.  That creates powerful effects from the Principle of Reinforcement, regardless of the self-referential peril in all of it.

As far as creating coherence with his larger community of psychological professionals, that’s not his job.  At Yale, he’s supposed to be a thought leader. He’s deeply concerned about people connecting, because when people connect, that has the potential to diminish his authority.  As an Authoritarian, he’s not likely aware of this — it’s just what they do — but it comes out of deep automatic programming in his own brain.

And standing up and saying something like Empathy is Bad, and the Root of Our Problems in the world — well, that will get attention.  Getting attention will increase his status, and that will make him even more of an expert. It’s hard to believe that he hasn’t read any of the empathy literature — there’s a lot of it, and that likely makes his position deliberate.  But there’s no hay to be made by standing up and saying ‘Empathy is Good’ because, in general, this society, at this point in time, wouldn’t remark upon that as a unique opinion. That’s not going to get you on any talk show, or sell many books.

And while it’s true Bloom is taking advantage of the general public’s lack of specific knowledge about empathy, and using his authority to assert a different definition and follow on with ostensibly immoral acts, it doesn’t mean that the public’s beliefs are wrong.  What I’ve found giving talks to different audiences is that people’s understandings regarding empathy are incomplete.  When I organize my stuff and present it to them, it makes sense.  At some level it matches their experience — after all, it’s not their job to stare at a wall and think about this stuff, going over and over it to make sure the categorization is consistent.  That’s what I do.

What’s always fascinating, though, about an Authoritarian projection of any concept is what it tells you about a.) how that person views other people, and b.) the extent of their own limited subset of behaviors that they project on others in conveying an understanding of a social phenomenon.  This is where Bloom gets pretty scary.  The only reason Bloom can see for charitable giving is narcissism and self-pleasuring.  Altruistic behavior can only exist in the context of a lack of emotion and connection.  Forget real attachment — that doesn’t exist in the rabble.  That soldier that threw himself on the grenade didn’t do it because he loved his buddies and was profoundly empathetically connected to them through a series of traumatic experiences.  He did it because he thought it would feel good.

And one of the likely reasons that Bloom is advancing the thesis that connection is bad?  It makes people feel bad.  And when people feel bad, they become passive.  And passive people are far more easy to control.  That allows more of that Authoritarian v-Meme to dominate, regardless of the fact that Bloom himself won’t necessarily be the benefactor of that control.  That’s the thing about v-Memes — they want to propagate, and they have lots of agents out there doing the propagation.

One can also see how Bloom’s argument maximizes reliability — which is a key element of Authoritarianism in general.  If someone does something good, it’s because they got an instantaneous buzz off of it.  No need to get to know someone more deeply, or understand the longer history behind their thought process.  The passage of time doesn’t exist in Bloom’s projection of his world onto yours — so as the Authority, it doesn’t exist in yours either.  You have no agency, and therefore, no consequence.  It’s simplistic, right/wrong thinking — empathy decreases morality.  Being connected makes you more immoral in your actions.  And why?  Because he said so.

But it fails the basics of validity — is something an obvious, demonstrable outcome of whatever theory one has.  Authoritarians like Bloom almost always have no problem with this, as they believe they control the truth inside their own head.  But the reality of empathy, which this entire blog is devoted to, is far more complex.  Going full Zen dualism on you, empathy, as the primary factor in information coherence, can lead to good or bad consequences.  And those are dependent on observed time and spatial scales, which, as has been discussed, empathy manifests developmentally.  Getting to the objective truth of any action, as philosopher Ken Wilber has discussed, is profoundly difficult.  It’s not just categorizing a feel-good moment.  But that level of complexity, with its mix of independent agency and external forcing, is apparently outside Bloom’s ability for comprehension, at least with regards to empathy.

One of my favorite stories for illustrating exactly the larger dynamic of why empathy is threatening to Authorities is the story of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria.  I’ve discussed this earlier here, but it’s illustrative, and worth a re-tell.  Most people are familiar with the story, but the short version is this:  Boko Haram, a radical, tribal Islamic militant organization operating in northern Nigeria, kidnapped 276 schoolgirls with the intent of distributing them to their fighters as wives.  The world found out about it, and it dominated the news cycle for months.  The girls were never released, but the event spurred international engagement in resolving Nigeria’s situation that continues to this day.

How does empathetic development matter in the case of Boko Haram?  100 years ago, a group like theirs might kidnap girls and no one anywhere in the world would know.  Fast forward fifty years, and now a cultural anthropologist — an authority — might be on hand to tell us that such kidnappings were routine, though this one might be anomalous in its size.  Such an expert would also likely tell us that this was a manifestation of the culture in the area, and we would be engaging in cultural imperialism if we became outraged.  In today’s world, though, with the Internet and mass connection, a large and varied data stream is being sent into every household regarding the incident — from Facebook and Twitter to the more traditional news organizations.  Even Michelle Obama posted a photo and hashtag #bringbackourgirls on her Twitter account.  No longer would the academic authority’s sole opinion hold up — that somehow this was acceptable as a cultural/externally defined manifestation of behavior.  The global public had decided it was wrong.

That doesn’t mean the collective intelligence is always long-term moral, and certainly there is room for discussion.  But one thing that is abundantly clear — collective intelligence, empathetically connected, is a profound threat to the Authoritarian v-Meme.  So should it be any surprise that one of the last bastions of perceived international Authority — the faculty at one of the most prestigious institutions in the world — might send forth an emissary to wound the empathetic development beast that they perceive is threatening their existence?

If anything, Bloom’s thesis and lack of integrative ability should be one more wake-up call to the academy.  Regardless if Bloom publishes his book or not, the emergent trends are all on the side of more empathetic connection.  And understanding this, in my opinion, with its shades of gray, would be a much better use of a developed mind.





4 thoughts on “Against Empathy — Really?

  1. Reading his further explanation (but not the book), it really does seem like he is clearly trying to redefine empathy after the fact. What he discusses as the alternative to empathy sounds a lot to me like… empathy. Rational empathy, yes, but empathy nonetheless. Imagining how people feel, not necessarily mirroring it back at them, but using it to comfort them. Isn’t that empathy? At least in the practical sense?
    Having read a longer explanation of his stance on the Boston Review, I don’t see your Authoritative v-Meme suggestion as much as I do in the video. He discusses many of the points you make to counter him, but suggests them as negatives (as in, soldier being hurt by being empathetic, you say kind act to mitigate suffering, Bloom says evidence that empathy can cause harm to the empathetic even when it is helpful to some.) I’m willing to see his point that there is some harm that can be associated with empathy (like the biases towards conventionally attractive people – and so against less attractive people in court) but to go so far as to be against it seems… unnecessarily inflammatory, and since it doesn’t seem to meet his actual view, I would agree you are likely right that it is a statement that is attention seeking in nature.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Jerman. Wilber does a whole deconstruction of understanding maturity (pre-conscious, conscious, post-conscious) that I would apply to Bloom’s moral argument if I wasn’t sitting here hoping I hadn’t blown my MCL! Bloom’s deconstruction in this moral framework is about this maturity.

      But more fundamentally — is empathy connection or not? I say ‘yes’. And the science backs me up. But I’ll be the first to admit — it’s not the same rigid cause-and-effect we’re used to. We have to have an adaptive vision.


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