Psychologist Bloom (Just Babies) makes the provocative argument that empathy is not the vital catalyst for human morality it is thought to be, and that the impulse toward empathetic feelings should, in fact, be suppressed. The argument centers on empathetic bias, where people favor those they can more easily relate to, which in Bloom’s analysis leads to “parochialism and racism.” Furthermore, empathy often gets hijacked by individual political persuasions, and its “spotlight” focus can bypass rational thought, ignoring important context. Bloom takes aim at scientific claims about “mirror neurons” supposedly linked to empathetic thought, and at the use of empathy-measuring scales in laboratory settings. He also points out the misery that occurs for those who experience empathy too deeply. Bloom’s solution is a morality based on “self-control,” “intelligence,” and “diffuse compassion,” an innate kindness that exists in people independent of empathy. Not surprisingly, his prescriptions don’t quite convince. His political arguments are obtuse. His assertion that moral feelings about issues like global warming exist without immediate victims to empathize with is only true if one does not take into account caring for one’s children’s futures. Still, there is something here. While Bloom may not entirely vanquish empathy, he makes a powerful appeal for a more reasonable and responsible deployment of it. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman. (Dec.)
Bloom (Brooks & Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology & Cognitive Science, Yale Univ.; Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil) continues his investigations into the nature of morality. In first focusing on the definition of empathy as a narrow personal and emotional response, a "spotlight" effect results, which makes the qualities of empathy less effective in creating change than other human qualities. Bloom maintains that instead of requiring empathy in both national policy and personal decisions, an Enlightenment view would be much more effective. Invoking Adam Smith and the Dalai Lama, he emphasizes that the human capacity for self-control, intelligence, and compassion are much better internal guides for people and groups than mere empathy. Feeling empathy, Bloom suggests, does not help us learn to assess critically our own limitations in order to make the best decisions. VERDICT This refreshing, well-structured polemic against fatuousness and sloppy thinking is recommended for advanced general and social sciences readers.—Kellie Benson, Oakton Community Coll. Libs., Des Plaines, IL
The potential of empathy to lead to cruelty prompts Bloom (Psychology/Yale Univ.; Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, 2013, etc.) to promote the function of compassion, which is informed by rational deliberation.The author distinguishes between sentimental and cognitive empathy. Without the reasoning power of the latter, impulsiveness is subject to self-deception and manipulation. Sentimental empathy is narrow, Bloom writes, “like a spotlight,” introducing bias, distortion, and/or worse. Most people are unable to truly empathize with more than one or two others at a time. Cognitive empathy enables the understanding of “what’s going on in other people’s heads.” A single case—e.g., the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut—evokes a much stronger response than the daily murders of teenagers in inner cities around the country. We should empathize with all these people, and the billions more around the world in need, “but we can’t.” As the author shows, we need our cognitive capabilities to truly value their lives. Bloom’s argument takes in many elements of modern neuroscience and psychology in distinguishing among various mental frameworks. Neuroscience has also been used to test how empathy can distort our responses and judgments. For example, we react differently when asked to think “objectively” or from the standpoint of our feelings in considering whether terminally ill children should be moved up a waiting list for treatment or not. In this situation, by ignoring the whole picture, empathy may be both cruel and unjust. Thankfully, “we can engage in reasoning, including moral reasoning, that is more abstract.” While reason can be subject to bias and distortion, as well, we still shouldn’t belittle our rational capabilities as impotent or insignificant. People, writes Bloom, are “not as stupid as many scholars think we are.”An intriguing counterattack to modern psychological cynicism.
Provocative . . . In a time of post-truth politics, his book offers a much-needed call for facts.
A lucidly argued tract about the hazards of good intentions.
Bloom challenges one of our most cherished assumptions about what it takes to be good. With elegance and humor, Bloom reveals just how flawed that assumption is, and offers a new vision of a moral life-one based on how our minds actually work.
A brilliant, witty, and convincing defense of rational generosity against its pain-feeling detractors. Read this book and you will never think about empathy, goodness, or cold-blooded reason the same way again.”-
Brilliant, powerful, and provocative, Against Empathy is sure to be one of the most controversial books of our time.
One of the most thought-provoking and convincing books I’ve read. Bloom’s logic is compelling, his prose fluid, and his deep humanity and compassion always evident. A must-read for those who want an alternative to a world where emotional gambits reign supremefor better and often, for worse.
The title may shock, but this is a book of calm reason and expansive compassion. It’s also a pleasure to read: warm, lucid, and thought-provoking.
Bracing and provocative, Against Empathy takes a scalpel to empathy. This lucid and entertaining book argues there is a better way - that our capacity for reason, tempered with compassion, will make us better policy makers and better people.
Bloom’s analysis is penetrating, comprehensive, and timely. Against Empathy is destined to become a classic in psychology.
Despite a near consensus about its merits, Bloom shows that empathy is often just the warm embrace of prejudice-and, like anger, a reliable source of moral confusion. . . . a thrilling book, and reading it could well make you a better person.
I couldn’t put this brilliantly argued book down.
An invigorating, relevant and often very funny re-evaluation of empathy, one of our culture’s most ubiquitous sacred cows, which in Mr. Bloom’s view should be gently led to the abattoir.
A nuanced foray into some fraught grey areas.
Bloom’s more positive view of the role of reason fits with what I take to be the correct understanding of ethics.
Like a tough-to-crack case against an idea that most of us have long known is key to repairing the world… will legitimately change how you think about the world and your own sense of morality.
Mr. Bloom is undoubtedly right that empathy alone makes for bad policy: While it can motivate us to care, we need reason to help us design and implement policies aimed at reducing suffering.