Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Our video team’s short piece highlighting psychologist Paul Bloom’s argument against empathy (embedded above and previously discussed here) has continued to draw responses from around the Web. In a post on Medium, Joe Evans ties the video to philosopher Peter Singer’s two altruist character types:
The warm-glow altruist donates a small amount to a number of organisations with each act of charity providing a small rush, concluding that the donations are simply a self-congratulatory “buzz”, while the effective altruist analyses “what the world needs, how they could use their money to best end and how they could volunteer and act to make things better”. In the video, Bloom implies empathy as the cause of warm-glow altruism and the absence of it as the improvement in behaviour of the effective altruist.
Another public advocate of effective altruism is Rachel Elizabeth Maley, who writes in The Huffington Post:
The problem with warm glow giving is not an excess of empathy, but a lack of reason, and that is a very important distinction.
My fellow effective altruists and I are proof that empathy and reason can coexist quite amicably - dare I say, effectively? - in a donor. It is true that empathy leads to warm glow giving, but it is also true that criticizing the empathy of an already charitable person will discourage them from giving at all.
An Atlantic reader sounds off:
Professor Bloom certainly has a provocative premise. I think I’d have to read the entire book to fully understand his arguments, but this video offers some fairly unconvincing examples.
It might be Bloom’s background in cognitive science that’s at work here. Research on emotions, something of a cornerstone in clinical practice, tells a very different story. Warm glow altruism isn’t empathy at all (“look at all the money I’m giving to blind babies!”), but communal narcissism, a way of feeling good about ourselves, puffing up our pride (openly or secretly) by proving ourselves “helpful” or “altruistic.”
The rage that drives us to attack another country isn’t empathy either; it’s rage, a secondary response to more primary vulnerable feelings, like sadness and fear. The attack is a way of avoiding those feelings, not experiencing and expressing them. So it has precious little to do with “empathic engagement.” Much of war is simply fueled by the cycle of violence, a failure to grieve and feel for others (true empathic engagement). One group’s triumph becomes another trauma. And round and round it goes.
The baby in the well is hardly a convincing example of empathy either. We’re compelled by sensationalized stories in the news all the time. I’m not sure the people watching are empathically engaged.
Maybe I’d find the ideas more compelling if the video itself didn’t conflate empathy with all sorts of attempt to dodge it. This is a glaring example of the gap between how clinicians, who work with living breathing human beings over time, understand emotions and how in-the-lab (or in-the-head) researchers tend to view feelings and our attempts to cope with them.
This isn’t an argument against empathy. It’s an argument for it—genuine empathic engagement, something that takes courage to maintain.
Much more reader dissent and discussion here. Bloom encourages those interested to read a 2014 piece he authored for the Boston Review, which includes a discussion of the difference between empathy and compassion:
Here’s Bloom in that piece:
Putting aside the obvious point that some degree of caring for others is morally right, kindness and altruism are associated with all sorts of positive physical and psychological outcomes, including a boost in both short-term mood and long-term happiness. If you want to get happy, helping others is an excellent way to do so.
It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.
Read his full argument here. Update from a reader, Kristen Ballinger:
In response to Paul Bloom’s essay, “Is Empathy Actually a Bad Thing?” Obviously it isn’t! His point is that empathy, unbalanced by critical thinking, is ineffective. I would add that critical thinking, unbalanced by concern for others, is dangerous. Moral action requires both.
Martin Luther King, Jr. identified the necessary tension of embodying both qualities in his sermon “A Tough Mind And A Tender Heart.” A few excerpts:
A French philosopher said, “No man is strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked.” The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites. Not ordinarily do men achieve this balance of opposites. The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic. The militant are not generally known to be passive, nor the passive to be militant. Seldom are the humble self-assertive, or the self-assertive humble. But life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony. The philosopher Hegel said that truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis that reconciles the two.
Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites. He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world. … He gave them a formula for action, 'Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.' It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.
A third way is open to our quest for freedom, namely nonviolent resistance, which combines tough mindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft minded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted. My belief is that this method must guide our action in the present crisis in race relations. Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for full stature as citizens, but may it never be said, my friends, that to gain it we used the inferior methods of falsehood, malice, hate, and violence.
I’m a medical student, and during my first years taking care of patients I’ve been struggling to balance concern for the patient with dispassionate knowledge-based decisions on their care. Recently, I spent some time in the psychiatry wards and learned about Dr. Marsha Linehan’s effective treatment for suicidal patients. It is called “Dialectical Behavior Therapy.” She emphasizes the need for dialectics, or accepting two opposite truths at the same time. I think she and Heigel were getting at the same basic truth about human nature.
Empathy OR critical thinking is a false dichotomy. We need both!
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