Empathy makes us immoral, says a Yale psychologist

We don’t need empathy to be kind.
We don’t need empathy to be kind.
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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Empathy, in general, has an excellent reputation. But it leads us to make terrible decisions, according to Paul Bloom, psychology professor at Yale and author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. In fact, he argues, we would be far more moral if we had no empathy at all.

Though it sounds counterintuitive, Bloom makes a convincing case. First, he makes a point of defining empathy as putting yourself in the shoes of other people—“feeling their pain, seeing the world through their eyes.” When we rely on empathy to make moral decisions, he says, we end up prioritizing the person whose suffering we can easily relate to over that of any number of others who seem more distant. Indeed, studies have shown that empathy does encourage irrational moral decisions that favor one individual over the masses.

“When we rely on empathy, we think that a little girl stuck down a well is more important than all of climate change, is more important than tens of thousands of people dying in a far away country,” says Bloom. “Empathy zooms us in on the attractive, on the young, on people of the same race. It zooms us in on the one rather than the many. And so it distorts our priorities.”

And whereas most people associate empathy with kindness and charity, Bloom links empathy with war. “Empathy for suffering victims is inevitably used as a catalyst towards violence,” he says, using as an example the trotting out of victims of crime, as Donald Trump did when advocating for deportation of immigrants. “It’s no accident that Donald Trump wants to have a registry of crimes committed by illegal immigrants… I think it leads us to actions and judgments that are irrational and often cruel.”

Of course, empathy can be used towards a positive end. A photo of a young shell-shocked boy in Aleppo, Syria, sparked massive empathy response and led to an uptick in charitable donations. But, Bloom notes, the same photo fueled enthusiasm for military invasion—which may well have been a disastrous decision.

Bloom compares using empathy for a positive goal to using other emotions to benefit society. “Sure. Anger, jealousy, guilt can all be used to prod good decisions,” he says. “I don’t doubt that empathy can be used in good ways.”

It would be far better, he says, if we made moral decisions based on rational deliberation. We can still consider others’ viewpoints without empathy. We can listen, take them seriously, and make a just plan to resolve conflicting positions, without having to feel what other people to feel, Bloom argues. “In order for me to help a situation where women are discriminated against in my university, I don’t think I have to feel what it’s like to be a woman who’s discriminated against,” says Bloom. “I think that’s almost a narcissistic exercise. It’s not really about me.”

Ultimately, we tend to favor empathy when it supports our moral decisions, and abhor it when it focuses on the opposing perspective. And perhaps, as Bloom argues, we’d be better off without empathy altogether.