Paul Bloom: The case for rational compassion

By Robert Wright, Aug 12 2020

Paul Bloom is not a monster! I don’t normally begin my introductions of people with those kinds of reassurances, but Paul, a professor of psychology at Yale, is the author of a book called Against Empathy—and that title has led to some misunderstandings. Paul would like you to know that he isn’t entirely against empathy; he’s just against its counterproductive application—which he thinks is pretty common. After his book came out in 2016, I had a conversation with him on The Wright Show. I always have fun talking to Paul, and I think this extended excerpt shows why.

BLOOM: ...I actually suffer from an abundance of empathy. This book is, in some sense, a self-help book for myself. I tear up at things, I get really upset when I hear stories about people suffering. My charitable contributions are bizarre, based on personal prejudices and strong feelings. ...

WRIGHT: So this book is a cry for help. ...

This is definitely a cry for help. 

I would think that the temptation, if you write a book called Against Empathy, when you meet someone who has only heard the title, … is to say, "No, don't get the wrong idea." … The subtitle kind of says it: "The case for rational compassion." 

Exactly. The subtitle … is ... saying: “Look, I'm against something, but this is not one of those weird pro-psychopathy books that [says] we should be cruel to each other. It's not some sort of a plea for selfishness or brutality. It's rather: if you want to be a good person, there's a better way to do it.” ...

Some people think "empathy" is just a catch-all term for everything good: being kind, being moral, being compassionate or understanding. I have no problem if people want to use the word that way, and in that case, I'm not against empathy. I mean it in a more narrow sense: roughly, putting yourself in the shoes of other people, feeling their pain, feeling their suffering. 

And even taking that into account, I'm not against empathy for all realms of life. I think it's a wonderful source of pleasure. But the argument I make, which still remains somewhat controversial is that this narrow type of empathy is a very bad moral guide. It makes us into worse people, it makes the world worse. 

...  I think later we'll get into some of these distinctions: between empathy and compassion, and also a distinction you make between emotional empathy—you know, feeling their pain—and cognitive empathy, [which is] just understanding what the world looks like to them—that you're not railing against. ...


The dangers of empathy

Why don't you give us some examples of the damage empathy can do.

So, I give two examples. 

One is: empathy sets our priorities in a weird way. It is because of empathy that we care more about a little girl stuck in a well than we do about the crisis of climate change or global terrorism—anything statistical and future-oriented. Empathy zooms us in on particular concerns, often very real and significant concerns, but it causes us to blow them out of proportion.

Worse, what it could sometimes do is cause us to address problems in ways that make the world worse. One hypothetical example I give is that if a little girl dies or gets very sick from a vaccine, we'll often shut down the vaccine program—even if a dozen people are saved each year by it—because you could feel the suffering of the girl, of her family, but the statistical abstraction that there are people who would have died but didn't leaves us cold. We can talk about some real-world examples like that. 

So one problem with empathy is it misdirects our action. 

Another problem with empathy is that it's used as a tool for violence and aggression. For every atrocity, every poorly thought-out war, people use empathy as a way to elicit aggression. 

Inevitably, for any discussion, sooner or later, we have to discuss Trump. And Trump may or may not be an empathic man, but he is certainly adroit at using the empathy of others. And in fact, a lot of his attacks on immigration … are actually not sort of nasty claims about immigrants, per se. They are horrible stories of people raped or killed or assaulted by immigrants. And you read these stories, and you feel terrible. And this terribleness, this empathy for these victims naturally translates into aggression. 

Sometimes, when people think of empathy, they think about puppies and charity and helping out lost people and everything. I think about going to war. Because whenever you see a war, just or unjust, it's used as a tool. If we ever go to a full-scale war against ISIS, we're going to see more and more videos of people being beheaded. 

So there's a couple of different things there. One of them is that it leads you to focus on an individual case and shower resources on it, and take resources away from things that are less concrete, but maybe involve more people, more suffering, maybe in the future. 

You mentioned the girl in the well. Our younger viewers may be too young to recall how much time was eaten up on CNN and other networks by a girl—I think her name was Jessica, I don't know—she was in a well, I think it was West Texas...

The Midlands.

Yeah, Midlands, where I used to live, actually. That's why I remember it. 

It just went on and on, ... they could communicate with her—and, you know, somewhat predictably, I think they got her out. Right? 

They did. 

I don't think, actually, all the attention showered on her globally facilitated the getting out, but... 

No. To get somebody out of a well, it's just going to take some patience... but if you don't remember, too young for that—and I know your readers [and] watchers trend very young...

Oh, we have the demographic most sought by advertisers. Affluent and 22 years old, all of them.

So a 22 year-old might remember Natalie Holloway. A girl—an attractive girl—lost, kidnapped, murdered in, I think, Aruba. And that also captivated everybody's attention, during which time there was this on-going slaughter in Africa costing … hundreds of thousands of lives. 

And Paul Slovic, who is a psychologist who would make sense of these things, points out that network news didn't cover any of Africa thing. They had endless, wall-to-wall coverage of the Natalie Holloway case. 

And I'm not denying the moral significance of baby Jessica's life and Natalie Holloway's life. But empathy throws everything out of proportion. 

And it's not just numerically out of proportion. I don't have many stories of people weeping over black girls, or people who aren't American—because there are no such stories. Empathy is not only innumerate. It's also extraordinarily racially biased. You see this in the lab. You see all of these experiments involving watching the brain light up in empathic responses, and it's biased in every way you could imagine. 

Okay, so this gets to one of the issues with empathy, which is that we do not bestow it equally on individuals. Leaving aside the fact that that focusing too much on any one individual may be morally problematic from your point of view, there are findings about the kinds of people that we're likely to shower empathy on—it has to do partly with their relationship with us, right?

Yep. There's tons of findings. 

Some of them focus on the relationship: were they kind to us in the past, are they friends or foes? Some of the findings have to do with what we think of them morally. 

One classic study looked at empathic responses to AIDS victims, and it turned out that, if you were told that they got AIDS through an injection or through a blood transfusion, empathy flowed freely. But if you were told they got it through unprotected sex, it shut down.

And then there's all this affiliation work. One of the sort of Psych 101 findings that always replicate is we care more about our group than about other groups. This is the bread and butter of so much of your theorizing and so much of your writing. 

One cool illustration— ... I'm giving you all the neuroscience of empathy studies, cause they're ... a pretty direct measure—is they got these European soccer fans, and they got to witness the pain of somebody else. 

And when the other person was described as a fan of the same team, they had empathy: the same pain areas that would activate if they themselves were in pain lit up when they watched other ones in pain. If they were told that these guys were fans of the other team, not only did empathy drop, parts of the brain associated with pleasure light up. 

... We also have the capacity to step back. To some extent, my book is about how smart we are. Because you can say: yeah, actually, a hundred lives is worth more than one. Actually, a black girl matters as much as a white girl. Actually, soccer affiliation shouldn't matter. When you step back, you see how irrational our empathic responses are, how immoral. ...

Compassion vs empathy

Now, let's get into the definition a little bit. ... This does become important, because part of your contention that you're not a horrible person depends on your being pro-compassion while being anti-empathy. 

Yes. 

Now, for starters, do you run into people who say "I thought those two were the same thing"?

I am busy right now responding to a critique of an article I wrote in Trends In Cognitive Science by a friend of mine and a wonderful cognitive neuroscientist who attacks me and says "They are one and the same. Why are you trying to pull them apart?" 

I spend a lot of the book arguing that they can be pulled apart. They can be pulled apart every way you could imagine. 

My favorite studies here are done by this wonderful  team, Tania Singer, who's a neuroscientist and Matthieu Ricard, who you will know from your Buddhist meditation interest, who's a Buddhist monk and a biologist.

He's the happiest man in the world.

The happiest man in the world! 

He's been called that.

When I get together with him, in the room, there's not an average person in the world.  (Laughs.) I met him once. Amazing, you know, very different from me.

So they did all these studies together where they train people to be empathic, to feel other people's pain, to put yourself in their shoes, and they scanned their brains as they do, and they look at things... And then they train another group of people: they say, just love other people, just feel "loving-kindness" as you guys say, but don't feel their pain. And then what they find is different parts of the brain light up, and more importantly, it has different consequences. 

Empathy wears you out. It makes you avoidant. It's painful. It's unpleasant. When you're empathizing [with a] suffering person, you're suffering, that's awful.

Compassion makes you productive, positive, cheers you up. I like this work because it's just the clearest illustration [that] you could pull them apart. 

An alternative title for my book would be "clarifying different routes of moral action," pulling apart things that people blend together.

The immediate response I often get is: "If you don't feel another person's pain, why would you want to help them? What would motivate you to help them?" And it just takes a little while to realize—put aside the laboratory work—that there's all sorts of times where we want to help somebody without feeling their pain.

If my child wakes up in the middle of the night from a screaming nightmare, and I go to see him, I don't feel his terror. I just want him to calm down. I love him. 

If you're having an anxiety attack and you come to talk to me, I don't need to feel anxious. 

So, you don't need empathy to be a good person.

And the brain scans show a difference between when people are actually feeling the pain [and when they're not]. Now, I assume in both of these cases, they were told to think about … the same suffering people. 

Yes. 

And—I know Ricard, a very adept meditator—he did this himself, right?

Yes.

I'm not surprised that he can do it so readily, right? Like, he can say: okay, now I'm going to feel true empathy, experience the pain that I see them experiencing; now, I'm just going to feel compassion—because really adept meditators are really good at it, very subtly shifting gears. 

But I'm a little surprised that the run of the mill—I mean, I think I might have trouble. 

What I'm saying is, I think, the way empathy works is that it's not generally something people decide to do. They see somebody suffering, they either feel it or they don't. 

But I should say, his brain scans did draw a clear distinction, so, ... leaving aside these lay people who, I guess, were also studied, he's a very interesting case. And, in his conversations with you, he said, "Oh man, compassion is way better than empathy," right? In terms of its actual usefulness in doing good things. 

Yeah. I met him years ago, when I was just starting this project. A very nice man. And we sat down for some tea and he asked me what I was up to, and I felt embarrassed—you know, I'm writing a book against empathy—it felt like, I don't know, I'm telling a rabbi I'm writing a book against Shabbos. But he said:” Of course, empathy is terrible. Empathy is waste, it exhausts you. … Compassion is so much better.”

And he pointed me to Buddhist theology. There's a wonderful book by Charles Goodman, which carefully makes this distinction. 

Now, I agree with you, your average person—you can't just switch it back and forth. 

They did these experiments with Ricard before they did it with normal people where they said: "Okay, feel empathy for a long time." And he did this, and they scanned his brain, and he got up. They said, "Do you want to continue?" And he said, "I really want to spend a bit of time feeling compassion. Do you mind? ... This was awful." 

However, I think there are ways in which we can become less empathic when we want to.

There's some really cool work by David DeSteno and his colleagues, which find that different forms of meditation, like mindfulness meditation, might make you nicer, more compassionate. I think we should be cautious cause there's a lot of claims that [get disproven]—and he's suitably cautious—but there's some good evidence [that] it makes you nicer. And there's different explanations for why.

But one explanation he's fond of is, it shuts down the parts of your brain that are involved in empathy. So you're kinder because you're not upset by the suffering person. You don't want to avoid them. ... You can just love them and want to help them. 

Ricard is drawing a pretty clear distinction between the two, almost a dichotomy. I think some people introspectively might think that it's a little more of a continuum, and I think you kind of acknowledge in parts of the book that it is. 

You have the definition of compassion by Tania Singer and her colleague in the book. They write: "In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other. Rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern, and care for the other, as well as”—and I think this is the key part, for my purposes—“as well as a strong motivation to improve the others' wellbeing."

Yes. 

From your point of view, that's the part of empathy that's kind of problematic, right? I mean, "the strong motivation to improve the other's wellbeing”—it's the fact that that sucks in all your resources, right? There is just inherent tension between, on the one hand, feeling such strong motivation to help that you wind up not doing so in a very rational way, all things considered—and on the other hand, the fact that feeling something like that is almost a prerequisite for morally-grounded intervention.

My main point is, even their definition of compassion has the dimension of empathy that, in some ways, bothers you.

Yeah. I think that's true. 

In some way, I would rank empathy and compassion, other moral faculties, on a continuum. And they're all subject to bias. 

Just as I'm much more likely to feel empathy for somebody who looks like me and maybe is related to me than to a stranger, I'm probably more likely to feel compassion for that person.

I mean, I'm not Matthieu Ricard. I don't have this limitless loving-kindness. The biases and narrowness and parochialism run right through our cognition. I wouldn't doubt that for a second. 

So I don't actually think we should use compassion for moral decision-making, either. I think the role compassion plays is, you need some sort of motivation.

David Hume famously said—I think there's never been a good response to this, and never been an argument against it which has been convincing—that it's not enough to reason your way through a conclusion. You need some sort of motivational kick in the pants. 

My "rational compassion" is meant as two things: you should use rationality to figure out the right thing to do, and compassion is the kick in the pants that makes you do it. And I think compassion works better than empathy in that regard, but I don't deny that compassion as biased. 

Rational compassion

So the morally ideal person, from your point of view, at some point feels some motivation to help people.

Absolutely. 

And then after that, it's all about rational calculation about how to help the most people. I mean, I kind of think of Peter Singer here. 

I know him somewhat and I remember a specific time when we were talking about somebody who had been kind of embarrassed. The name might be familiar to people, but it was a little bit of a public embarrassment, and Peter was—I don't know if it was empathy or compassion judging by what he said, but he was sensitive. 

And yet, Peter is famous for being against these, you know, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, some things you talk about in the book. He's a highly, highly rational person in the way he allocates his moral resources. 

So do you want us all to be like Peter Singer? 

Yeah. I think that that's exactly right. I think that's, in some way, the perfect combination. 

Singer himself would say that pure rationality could motivate you to do good things. The arguments here get technical, but he actually thinks you could just do it all the way on rationality. I don't think that that's right. But I think that one way to look at it is, you want to make the world a better place. You want to help people. That's a motivation, that's an emotion. But then you [ask the] question, how do you do it? And then I think you should calculate cost-benefit calculations. 

A long time ago, even before I started thinking about this book, I was on a radio show, and we were talking about morality and so on. I was with a minister who was a very smart person. At one point—I had just read this article in Slate about child beggars, called “Don't Give to Child Beggars,” and it said that when you give child beggars in India and Africa, you might make their lives better for a bit, but you're supporting this industry that enslaves and often maims children and makes the world worse. You should instead give to Oxfam or something. 

So in the course of this discussion, I say this, and she's very offended. She says, “I think it's horrible not to give. When I give, I have a special connection, the special feeling of intimacy and warmth, there's  humanness,” she says—and I'm very slow on my feet, so I probably said something like "Oh, okay, I guess I'm going to think about that." But then, like days later, it occurred to me my response, which is: It depends what you want. 

If you want to feel really good, if you want to have a good buzz and a good satisfaction—by all means, give to child beggars. Choose your charity based on what cheers you up. Donate to multiple charities to get multiple little twinges of happiness. 

But if you want to actually make the world a better place and help people, do something different. 

And I think Peter Singer is a wonderful example of a person who chose option B, who self-consciously and intelligently has said: I want to help people make the world better and not just get the satisfying buzz of empathy and other responses. 

The evolutionary case against trusting your feelings

Right. And I mean, the presumption of the woman you were on the radio show with—and it is too bad you didn't have that comeback at the ready, I've got to say it was good—the generic presumption is you can trust your feelings. 

Yeah.

Right? And the implications of that actually go beyond trusting empathy, from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. There's lots of ways to be led astray by following your feelings. 

That's right. You know, I've been thinking about alternatives titles for my book. One idea was Empathy, Shmempathy. It was suggested. 

But another idea was Don't Listen to Your Heart. And empathy is just one case study, but I think you could go down the list. I've written before on disgust, which I think is a horrible moral guide. And I don't make the argument so much because I think most people already agree with me, but I could go down and say [the same] for anger, for shame, for guilt.

And this is because, as you have reminded us maybe more than any other scholar, evolution has created these emotions for very different circumstances. And while they are adaptive in evolutionary sense, in a moral sense ... in the modern world, they lead us astray. And so, to some extent, what we need to do—because we're smart—is be at war with our evolutionary systems.

This is what goes on in meditation. It goes on in conscious deliberation. I think one of the great things about people is that we can say "This really feels like the right thing to do, but, upon reflection, I realized that it's wrong."

Yeah. And I think we should feel lucky that natural selection did ednow us with these various feelings that are not, strictly speaking, self-centered, whether it's empathy, compassion, or whatever—you know, all the pro-social things. 

But at the same time, they're not designed to be deployed in a truly moral fashion. And if you deploy them unreflectively, you will not be the optimal moral person.

It's true. And I should qualify what I said then, which is: if evolution hadn't bequeathed us with some pro-social instincts to start with, we'd never get morality off the ground. 

So, to some extent, it's a bootstrapping process, where these things initiate moral thought. And then we go back, and we elaborate, and we develop, and we kick away some of the foundations once we're there. But if we were different creatures, without the forces of kin selection, reciprocal altruism, we wouldn't be having—well, we wouldn't be around—but we wouldn't be having this moral discussion at all.

So morality does rest on an evolved basis [???], it's just that so often we can transcend it. 

It's Evolution 101 that I love my kids more than I love your kids. But I also have the capacity to understand that, from a certain sort of procedural system, the law shouldn't treat my kids differently from your kids.

I'd be willing, if I was to be searching for an employee for the summer in my laboratory, to abide by Yale regulations that says I can't employ my family. I acknowledge that we have all these racial and gender and ethnicity biases and everything, but I also think that they're wrong and we'll work to circumvent them.

And it's this duality which fascinates me. 

All of these things can be put to good use. You acknowledge in the book that you can come up with thought-experiment examples where a dose of empathy would be better than nothing, but the argument that it is a particularly misleading emotion, I think, is very well made.

People often triumphantly say, "Well, here's a good thing empathy did. How do you deal with that, smart guy?" And my reaction is, I'm sure empathy does tons of good things. 

First thing, under certain circumstances—one person  in trouble, you could help them. Helping them has no ill effects on the world—then, if empathy pushes you to help them, it's a great thing. 

But in general, the fact that empathy has motivated some good things isn't itself an argument for it, because racism could be used to motivate all sorts of good behaviors. 

I give the example in my book: suppose there is a wonderful white candidate, a terrible black candidate, and it's really important. And so white Americans use a racist appeal to get people to vote for the white candidate. Well, now the world's a better place. We've elected a better person. Does this mean racism is a good idea? No. It means even a stopped clock is right sometimes. 

What about psychopaths?

So there are various kinds of challenges people might make to your argument. We've kind of covered some. Another is: wait a second, what about psychopaths? Aren't they people who lack empathy? And you have some interesting and surprising things to say about psychopaths. …

It turns out that the literature on psychopaths is … bit of a mess, because even people in the field use the term in different ways. And it often tends to be used, even amongst psychologists and psychiatrists, just to describe real bad people, whatever the badness is. …

Jon Ronson said in his book The Psychopath Test that if you're worried that you're a psychopath, you aren't. But if you're excited at the idea that you might be a psychopath, maybe you are. 

There's a classic psychopath test, developed by this Canadian psychiatrist Hare, which is this list of criteria. You can go online and score yourself on the psychopath test.

One of the items is lack of empathy. And it's true, psychopaths score low in standard empathy tests.

But what turns out … is people have studied what aspects of psychopathy actually lead to bad behavior. It turns out empathy has no predictive power at all. What has huge predictive power is a history of violence, of course, impulsivity, and lack of self-control. 

And the same thing happens with the rest of us. There is … a big meta-analysis that looked at all of these empathy studies with prisoners, with college students, with normal people, with professors, with everything looking at all different sorts of aggression—physical aggression, sexual aggression, verbal aggression—and the relation between low empathy and bad behaviors is like zero. 

I think what this goes to show is that there are other things going on in our morality, that a better judge of whether or not you're likely to rape or kill or help somebody has more to do with [whether] you want to make the world a better place, can you control your base impulses, and so on. But whether or not you put yourself in people's shoes, surprisingly—I would have thought there'd be some effect—is virtually irrelevant. 

Cognitive empathy

Now, the other sense of putting yourself in their shoes, cognitive empathy— 

Yeah.

You're skeptical, I think, of my claim that this is really the biggest single problem, the lack of cognitive empathy. But you're not against it in the way that you're against emotional empathy.

I am not. 

So, cognitive empathy is understanding what's going on in other people's heads. And I guess my sense and my views, actually, after talking with you, have been changing a bit. I'm more in favor of cognitive empathy than I used to be. 

I've always thought of it as something which is perfectly amoral. It's a form of intelligence. In fact, sometimes psychologists call it “social intelligence.” 

So if you're a really good guy and you want to make the world a better place, cognitive empathy is a terrific tool. Because, how are you going to help people if you don't know what they want? How are you going to get them to vote for you? How are you going to get them to do good things if you can't get in their head? You can't even buy a present for a child if you don't have cognitive empathy. You can't say a consoling word to a friend unless you know what will make a friend happy. So it's a wonderful tool for good. 

But on the flip side, suppose you're a seducer or a con man or a psychopath or a torturer. Cognitive empathy is wonderful. You want to make me suffer? If you really know what makes me tick, what I'm most afraid, what I'm most worried about, what I most don't want to hear ???, you will be very good at making me suffer. So it's a tool for whatever end you want to use it for.

Right. And these are arguments you made when you and I talked about this publicly in New York a few months ago. And that caused me to refine my thinking. I realized … [that] my claim that a lack of cognitive empathy is kind of the biggest single problem in the world [has] two dimensions to it. 

The first, in response to what you said: it's true that psychopaths can deploy cognitive empathy in destructive ways. Bad people like Hitler can deploy it in destructive ways. On the other hand, I kind of have a hunch that the bad people are already pretty good at it. Right?

I mean, if you do the thought experiment, ... if you imagine a world with perfect cognitive empathy, well then we would have known that the Munich agreement wasn't going to work with Hitler. We would have seen inside his head.

So I guess, in cases where it's zero sum—somebody is trying to exploit ... or kill somebody else—my hunch is that if you just maxed out on cognitive empathy globally, you would actually be somewhat correcting an imbalance. Because I would  guess that victims are worse at it than victimizers. But that's just a hunch.

The big thing I realized is that ... the main assumption behind my claim that a lack of cognitive empathy is the world's biggest problem  is that there are, leave aside these kinds of zero-sum relationships, a whole lot of non-zero-sum games out there that don't get played successfully, especially on the international relations front— … cases where both sides actually could be better off, but, as anyone can tell you, … a great crippler of solutions in non-zero-sum games can be misreading signals and not understanding what the actual perspective and interests of the other person are.

I'm clear on that now. I think it's because there are so many non-zero-sum games in the world that don't get played well that I'm big on cognitive empathy.

I agree with that. If I could turn the dial and increase the amount of cognitive empathy in the world, I'd do it in a second. Just as I'd turned the dial to increase the amount of intelligence in the world. Because, sure, there are evil people who would benefit from that—it’d be a shame to give a serial killer a 200 IQ and make them a master of understanding other people.

But on balance, for one thing, most people, I think, are good. Most people ... have compassion and kindness. And even putting that aside, a lot of our interactions are non-zero-sum. So I could be not a particularly good person, self-serving, but increased cognitive empathy will enable me to have interactions with other people that are a mutual benefit—because I'm trying to ... make things better [in my life], but now I'm smart enough to understand that working with you in a proper way will benefit us both. 

So yeah, I really think that, for the most part, the smarter the better, and that applies to social intelligence as well.

We touched a little on wars early on, but we didn't really get into it deeply. There's a line in your book that I think is relevant. It says, "I will concede that empathy can serve as the breaks in certain cases”—the breaks on bad things happening—“but I will argue here that it is just as often the gas", just as often the fuel for bad stuff. What are some examples of that? 

Well, I got into an interesting dialogue with the British psychologist, Simon Baron-Cohen.

Right. He’s featured in the book pretty extensively, because he's done a lot of work on empathy. And by the way, isn't he related to, uh... 

Sasha Baron-Cohen 

Yeah, Borat and so on.

Borat. Yes. And I have a lot of respect for Simon. We find ourselves on opposite sides on these issues, but he's been a very intelligent critic. 

And, in response to an early article I wrote, he gives the example of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was at the time of the Gasa conflict. He said: if only each side had more empathy for the other, we wouldn't be in this mess. If, when launching bombs at the other place, you realized and felt the suffering of the people, and so on... And my response is: I actually think it's the opposite.

When you look at when nations go to war, particularly when citizens are all behind, there's too much empathy. At the time, the Israelis were deeply moved by the kidnapping and murder of some Israeli teenagers. The Palestinians were tremendously moved by what they felt as horrific abuses of their people by the Israelis.

Now, I think Baron-Cohen is right, that if we could somehow feel the same empathy for the out-group as we do for the in-group—so that I love my enemy as I love myself, as I love my neighbor—then the world would be a better place. But that's not how the system works. When we put it down to the level of empathy, or emotions  in general, I’m going to care a lot more for my family and for my neighbors than for those people across the way who have tried to kill us so many times. 

So my claim, which is sort of the opposite of his, is that what the world needs for peace is not deeper feelings, it's more rationality and less deep feelings. Cause deep feelings inevitably translate into violence against out-groups.

In theory, if you could distribute deep feelings evenly—maybe that's a contradiction in terms because if they're spread too diffusely, they can't be deep or something—but, in theory, if you could … allocate empathy universally, I’m thinking you wouldn't object to it as much.

An omniscient God could feel everybody's pain equally and could also feel the pain of future generations generated by hypothetical possibilities, could add it all together, and then could always do the right thing. But we are not such creatures. 

Not only is empathy biased in obvious ways, but innumeracy is a problem too. 

Suppose we're struggling what to do about—I don't know, laws on campus regarding sexual assault, regulations about that. Big debate on many campuses. What sort of rules should there be to protect somebody who claims to be a victim, what should we use to protect somebody who's been accused? And I think typically people just empathize with one or the other.

 They sort of say: “Imagine what it'd be like to be a woman sexually assaulted, and your assaulter is let loose on campus.” “Imagine what it'd be like to be a man, a young freshman guy who is falsely accused, and you have no right to protect yourself.”

And so we should empathize with both of them. Then who else? You're going to empathize with other freshmen who see the regulations and respond accordingly. To the community. To the parents. What you end up with is you end up, I think, appropriately abandoning empathy and just saying, well, let's look at the big picture. Let's try to add up the pluses and minuses, apply universal principles, and so on. 

Empathy makes you stupid in that way. Zooms you in.

Right. It has more of that than compassion.

Yes. And compassion has its vulnerabilities. But you could feel compassion for a group of people—you can feel  compassion for a community ravaged by a tsunami or something—without ever imagining what it's like to be hit by one.

The distinction between compassion and empathy

If we're trying to get people to imagine the difference between empathy and compassion, I’m wondering if it's a little like [the differece between seeing] my child getting injured [and] watching some child I don't know getting injured. That might capture a little of it, right? 

I mean, when my child gets injured, I really feel the pain. When another child gets injured, I'm sorry about it... And, if it's horrific enough, I would, you know, be kind of devastated...

Yep.

But I'm just wondering, have you done this? Have you tried to explain to people: like, here's the distinction in ways that they could start to grok it?

So, one way to try to generate a feeling for the distinction is: a lot of people worry about climate change. So, here, I'm speaking to the half of the audience who do: if you're worried about climate change, why is that a problem?

Well, it's people in the future, it's future generations. But there's no particular person you're imagining suffering from it. I mean, you could generate such a person as a ... fantasy. But typically you just say, you know, millions, billions of people will suffer. 

If you don't like that example, [consider] failure to fund social security, rising deficits, international terrorism—these very serious, big issues. Many people are honestly concerned about them because they're worried the world will be worse. But you can get all of that without feeling anybody's pain. 

And I guess another example is: some of us give to all sorts of charities, and sometimes you hear, "oh my gosh, there was an earthquake so and so”—you know, I'll give some money there without ever really imagining what it's like to be in an earthquake. 

You know, there was a tsunami a long time ago. There was a horrific tsunami. And I remember at the time sending money online because it was just so moved by it. But I didn't imagine what it was like to be hit by a tsunami, not even for a second. I just said: that's awful, I don't want so many people to suffer. I'll try to do my bit to help. 

So that's the distinction. 

Empathy as moral jet fuel

In reading the book, I was trying to come up with killer arguments against it—when you're reading a book called Against Empathy, something in you just wants to come up with killer arguments against [it].

Yeah.

And it's a sign of its success that you can never quite find a killer argument—you keep coming up with these things that set me back. But one kind of argument (and I'm sure you've heard them all) is … if you can imagine a situation where what's required to do the highly moral thing is not something as casual and incremental as donating some money, but it's like, you're going to join a crusade. 

And of course, often crusades are misguided. But if it's something like, say, the institution of slavery—and you're white person, let's say—and you may or may not become a crusading abolitionist. And there may be this one moment where you saw a slave being mistreated, and you felt something that was true empathy, and maybe compassion wouldn't have done the trick.

So there's like a threshold effect, right? 

That's a good argument. I've often worried about that. 

So, it could be that empathy gives you more of a kick in the pants than compassion. Compassion is very Buddhist, very relaxed, "I want to make the world a better place”, but empathy could hit you like anything, could transform you and push you.

And it might be that certain good things that have happened in the world would not have happened if we weren't able to feel other people's pain. I can see that. 

I guess I would also inevitably add: and certain bad things that have happened in the world would not have happened if we didn't feel somebody's pain. …

You know, you hear in the American South stories about white women being raped... and this generates so much action. Moral action! These are not psychopaths, these are people who are trying to avenge a terrible wrong that has struck them in their heart.

So I would agree: empathy is moral jet fuel. But it could send you in all sorts of directions. 

And of course, Donald Trump used the rapist [image]: "they're coming over the border, after our women." That's a common thing. 

 empathy is used for pro-war propaganda

You talk a little about wars. I remember the first Iraq war. ... And I should say, as wars go, that wasn't bad—it was authorized by the security council, it didn't unleash a torrent of bad consequences, at least in an obvious way, the way the second Iraq war did.

But before it, when people were deciding whether to go to war, there was congressional testimony by, I think, some Iraqi woman. And testimony was that—people somehow associated with Saddam Hussein's regime unplugging incubators in hospitals. 

Now, it turned out it was just a total lie. In fact, the person testifying was actually like a PR person. I mean, it's just a complete fabrication. But that kind of thing, that is so consequential. 

And I assume you say that's classic empathy. When you start describing individual babies, like, dying. 

Yeah. 

And I remember that. I remember a Time magazine cover [with] an Iraqi woman with her nose cut off. Front cover.

I remember reading in the New York Times, by writers I respect, stories of the brutalities of Saddam Hussein's sons...

In run up to the second war. I can remember a specific [story]: ... supposedly one of their sons—there was some guy who was flirting with his girlfriend, so you know what he supposedly did? ... He had his goons hold the guy down and just pull out all his teeth. 

Now, there's some empathy for it. I'm like, "Ooh, I definitely don't want to be that guy." 

Yes. And I remember other stories which I won't repeat here. But it's funny that after all these years, that's what I remember.

Right. It is powerful. ...

Adam Smith pointed this out. ... I won't put it in his language, but when you put yourself in somebody's shoes, as somebody's suffering, you are consumed with a desire to make those who make him suffer pay. And after reading the stories of Sadam Hussein and his monstrous sons, it made me feel like I just wish we could fly there and string 'em up. And this is a sincere feeling. I just think history shows it makes for a very poor policy. ...

There's an expression: hard cases make for bad laws. Same thing for strong feelings: strong feelings make for bad decisions. 

Disgust and anger

So you're warning against a kind of myopia and distortion that sets in by virtue of our so-called moral impulses. And you're saying empathy is the biggest culprit of all. It's not that it's alone in this capacity, but it's the one that most focuses you on a single case, and perhaps even most … incapacitates your broader view and your rational capacities. 

It's a good question. I don't know. I kind of focus on empathy cause I have this broader agenda against trusting your feelings and in favor of rationality. Empathy is a good target because everyone loves empathy. So if I could cause you to question the value of empathy, then you'll agree to the broader program. …

Probably moral disgust, sexual disgust has the worst track record. Because empathy can help people by accident. Disgust just makes things worse.  And then you and I could talk about anger.

I once analogized empathy to anger. The philosopher Jesse Prinz, in a very smart commentary, says "You know, I agree with you on empathy. You're wrong about anger. Anger is a good moral force." 

And … Jesse is a smart guy. He says: Yes, you could get angry and beat someone to death and kill your child and everything like that—it has its bad sides—but anger is a great force for moral revolutions. You look at the moral heroes we have—Martin Luther King and so on—these are often people who are generated by a righteous anger, and not so much by empathy. 

In some ways, it's a case by case basis. 

I know the Buddhists are really down on anger.

Yeah, they're not pro-anger. ...

There's a book ... by Owen Flanagan, the philosopher, and he gets to meet with the Dalai Lama. So he gets to ask him one question. He asked a great question. He said, "If you could have gone back through time, would you have killed Hitler?" So the Dalai Lama talks to his translators, and his answer is, "Yes, I would have reluctantly killed Hitler to stop a bad karmic chain, but I would not have been angry at him." 

Kill him with loving-kindness. 

Exactly. 

Buddhism

Speaking of Buddhism, there's a line in your book that kind of reminded me of Buddhism. 

You're talking about the views of a Elaine Scarry, a literary scholar, and she’s recommending, don't try to make other people more morally weighty, make yourself less morally weighty. Bring everyone down rather than bringing everyone up. 

Yeah. 

It reminded me of some things you said when you read the book of mine that's about Buddhism. ... You raised the question: "Is meditation, as you're describing its effects, necessarily going to make people on balance better?" 

I think the defense of it is … that meditation, especially in particular Buddhist traditions, is designed to, above all, dissolve the sense that your self is a special self. And if you get rid of that, then a lot of bad stuff goes away.

I mean, the larger premise of Buddhism is that the things that make us suffer actually make us make other people suffer. ... But I do think that this particular idea—that if you just become a less selfish, self-absorbed person, then you will find yourself attaching equal weight to every human being, which is kind of your moral ideal, right?

I'll add: your book is extraordinary. I'm looking forward to a longer discussion of that. 

But here's my challenge for you. 

My challenge is that I agree [that] the meditative practice of obliterating the idea that you're special, and all your attachments and everything will turn you into a much better person. You're not gonna wage war on people. You're not going to rape them. You're not going to kill them. ... It'll take away all the bad stuff. My question is where does it cause good stuff? 

If I'm in this state where I recognize the impermanence of everything, ... why am I going to run out and try to help people? That I'm less sure of.

Well, I think that's a genuine challenge that Buddhism faces. I mean, it's not a practical challenge because virtually no one goes so far down the path that it becomes an issue. But it's true, the logical culmination of a certain kind of Buddhist thinking is that true-true- true enlightenment—in other words, the thing that none of us is actually maybe going to attain, nobody I know—but true-true-true enlightenment would involve not having preferences. And that presumably would include moral preferences. 

So I think that's a genuine theoretical challenge. On the other hand, (A) it's not much of a practical challenge since there's the number of people who arguably qualify as enlightened in the world I could probably count on both hands. 

[And (B)], even theoretically, if you imagine a world full of enlightened people, if you accomplished the whole Buddhist mission, well, you wouldn't have war, you wouldn't have murder or theft or exploitation, right? If nobody considered their interests to have priority over other people's interests.

So, you know, problem solved. 

There's still going to be drowning children.

You think?

And the question of whether or not to help them. But you're right, you're right. There'd be less of that. 

But the truth is all the people I know who are closest to qualifying as [enlightened]—and really, my research has led me to be in touch with some people who have meditated for thousands of hours, they clearly are in a totally different place than I am, some of them may be able to make a claim to being enlightened in the Buddhist sense—all of them would, in fact, step in and save the drowning child. 

That's the other thing: what prevents you from saving a drowning child is fear of what happens to you. Well, that is radically diminished, in theory. 

You know, there's a challenge which could be extended to both of us, which is: in your work on Buddhism, you're sort of obliterating the idea of specialness, of intimate relationships and so on; and I'm, to some extent, doing that in my anti-empathy books. So the question comes up: what about friends and family, parents and children? 

For instance, I argue that empathy keeps us from being impartial. But I'm not Peter Singer. I don't think you should be impartial with regard to certain [people].  Not only am I closer to my children than I am to strangers, I think that that's right. I should be. I should feel loyalty to friends and to my wife and so on. 

I have different answers to that. But the question of the role of empathy in these relationships does get a bit complicated. And this is actually something which I've changed my mind on. And I wonder if you see that as sort of a challenge to your own proposals regarding the Buddhist lifestyle.

Kind of. ...

First of all, in any moral system, you have to take into account the cost of changing in certain ways. The cost of becoming a person who doesn't love their own kids more than others... It's like, I didn't know how you'd go about that, it would take a huge amount of effort and would probably on balance make me a worse person if I did it through normal paths. 

Empathy in intimate relationships

On the other hand, I have interviewed somebody who had done so much meditation, and he actually said he had worked on dissolving his attachment to his own kids—he did that only after they were self-sufficient, they were off on their own, they didn't need his help—and he said something that, I suspect, is true and actually gets back to your book, when you talk about the costs of empathy, including the cost of being a highly empathic parent. 

He said "I think it made me a better parent." I can well imagine that that is the case. I have seen lots of cases where there's too much empathy for the good of either the parent or the child.

Yeah. I have examples of that in my book. One example ... is : one of my sons, a while ago, came up to me very, very anxious about his schoolwork. He left at the last minute, it's due tomorrow, he lost his backpack and all that, and my feeling as a parent is for me to get anxious too: "Oh my God, we're in big trouble.” …

That's not good parenting. It's not good friendship, [and] it's not good parenting. Good parenting is for you to be calm and say, "Ok, let's take the big perspective. Let's go out for a walk for 10 minutes, I'll buy you an ice cream, we'll go back and put in some time. I know you don't feel like it, but you gotta do it..."

It may be not the biggest deal in the world for parents, but high empathy is a good part of it. 

I'll add one thing against my view though. I gave a talk a little while ago, and this came up, and I said "What you want in intimate relationships isn't empathy." 

What you want is your partner to understand you—the cognitive empathy—and care for you. But you don't want them to feel what you feel. And this is maybe one of the few times in academic talk where people shouted at me as I was talking, and they shouted it "You're wrong!" 

It turns out that some proportion of the population—and I might be married to one of them—thinks, actually, sometimes, when you're angry, the person you love should feel your anger. 

I feel anger when my wife is angry, but it's not her anger I feel. That that's not what you mean, right? (Laughs) 

That's not what I mean. 

When somebody I love is sad, I'll feel sad cause I love them and don't want to see them sad. I'm talking about picking up their feelings as a mark of intimacy. 

This philosopher Michael Slote has a great example. You're a father, you have a daughter, your daughter does stamp collecting. It's one thing to say "I respect you, that's a great hobby, I encourage it." 

But if you could share her excitement, share her enthusiasm, that's something special. And so I'm more open to the idea that empathy plays some such role in close relationships. 

At the same time, there's such a thing as too much. And that's also true, as you note in the book, of doctor-patient relationships. You don't want a visibly empathic doctor. 

Yes. 

And their terminology trips people up. So there's all these empathy training and empathy classes and so on. What it typically comes down to is, you train the doctors to be polite and kind, and listen, and spend time with your patients—everything good. 

But when it comes to real empathy—if I'm terrified about my diagnosis, I don't want to see my doctor cry. I want him to be calm. I want to treat me with respect. If we're close, I want them to feel sad if I'm in trouble. But I don't want them to feel what I feel—then, all of a sudden, I don't have one problem, I have two. 

And this is [the case] considerably more with therapists. Anybody who thinks that therapists should get depressed when dealing with depressed people has a very poor conception of therapy. ...

Okay. Well, thank you, Paul. ... 

I should tell you an anecdote, actually. The person probably wouldn't mind. Do you know the guy, Guy Raz?

Of course. 

He's been a public radio presence for a while, and he does the Ted Radio Hour

Wonderful interviewer. 

Yeah. He had interviewed me for a thing, and somehow afterwards your name came up, and he said, "Oh, what a great guy. Doesn't he just strike you as exactly the guy you want to become friends with?"

Aww.

Wasn't that nice? And that's, actually, the sense you get from your prose style, which is quite a feat when the book is called Against Empathy

It's like, I want to become friends with this guy, seriously? And yet, by the end of the block, I was willing.

Well, that's the kindest thing somebody said to me a long time. Thank you. I'm at a loss for words. 


Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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