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 created a short piece on the work of psychologist Paul Bloom:
A reader weighs in:
Interesting proposition. I only agree partially. Empathy has great value in enabling us to connect to and understand other people. Understanding is a good thing (the alternative is insensitivity, even intolerance). I suggest to the author that the problem does not rest with empathy, but rather with the critical analysis, intent, and decisions made by the empath. To lose sight of optimal outcomes, in order to attain selfish, short-sighted gratification, is always a bad idea. Empathy can be very good; poor choices and decisions are bad.
The New York Times’s John Tierney reported yesterday on Dr. Bloom’s research, asking, “Is empathy an essential virtue for a presidential candidate?”
In his current research, Dr. Bloom and a colleague are finding that the more empathic people feel toward victims of terrorism in the Middle East, the more they favor taking military action.
“If I want to do terrible things to a group, one tried-and-true way is to arouse empathy for victims of that group,” Dr. Bloom said in an interview. “Often the argument for war is rooted in empathy for victims of the enemy.” Dr. Bloom concludes that empathy is overrated as a guide for personal morality or public leadership. “Sob stories are not a good way to make public policy,” he said. “The best leaders have a certain enlightened aloofness.”
On the other hand, several Atlantic readers point to Denise Cummins’s dissent against Bloom in Psychology Today a few years ago. Here’s Cummins:
Human history is replete with examples of principle-based atrocities. The reasoning underlying genocide and “ethnic cleansing” seems perfectly logical to people who subscribe to a twisted belief system—bring about a “greater good” by “cleansing” the world of “bad” people—but it’s empathetically bankrupt. What drives and sustains the suicide bomber? The belief in the purity of his principles, principles that require one to blind oneself to the suffering and carnage of the innocents at his mercy.
It was the cold light of reason—based of course on false beliefs—that gave us laws permitting slavery, burning human beings at the stake, and bear baiting as a form of entertainment. It was empathy for the victim that ended these practices. It is empathy that prevents a man from beating his wife when the law in some countries fully permits (or even requires) him to do so. It is empathy for the victim that brought us the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and the scores of other humanitarian organizations that grace our world. It is empathy that makes us want to rescue victims, and it is empathy that prevents us from killing their tormenters—despite our rage and lust for retributive justice.
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