Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion
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This event took place on Wednesday, December 14, 2016
JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to thank you all for beginning your day with us.
Our speaker is Paul Bloom, the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. He will be discussing his recently published book entitled Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, which has been causing quite a stir.
In recent decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in the idea that empathy is central to moral judgment and motivation. While most would agree that the importance of humans to feel with and for others is hard to deny, some have argued that researchers should focus their attention elsewhere—and that is exactly what our speaker has done.
In Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Professor Bloom provocatively argues that using empathy alone to make decisions can cause real harm, and he tells us that this is not the vital catalyst for human morality it is thought to be. In advocating for compassion informed by rational deliberation, he tells us that if you care enough about someone, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate their suffering, this will, in the end, make decisions clearer, fairer, and ultimately more moral.
Whether we are talking about who to give aid to, when to go to war, or how to respond to climate change, he posits that we are too often motivated by misplaced emotions that can actually blind you to the long-term consequences of your actions. Basing his argument on groundbreaking scientific findings, he argues that far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices, muddling our judgment, and could, ironically, often lead to cruelty.
Questions about moral judgments and what values should guide us are at the heart of the work of the Carnegie Council, especially now when the need for rationality because of certain developments appears to be in short supply. To help us find those critical compass points—the ones that will make us better people and better policy makers—please join me in giving a warm welcome to Professor Bloom. I think you've come to the right place.
PAUL BLOOM: Thank you for a very gracious introduction and for inviting me here. I'm very honored to be part of this community. Thank you all for being here.
I started to argue against empathy about three years ago in an article I published in The New Yorker. It was the first thing I ever published on this, so I was very eager to see what people would think about it.
Once it was posted online, I immediately went on social media to get a sense of the response. The very first thing I saw was a tweet on Twitter. It had the URL to my article and it said: "Possibly the dumbest thing I've read ever." Since then, I've received similar responses and critiques. One blogger at Harvard described me as a "moral monster and an intellectual disgrace."
I've come to realize that my message is not entirely welcome. To some extent, being against empathy sounds a lot like being against kittens. It's not really a sort of view one could seriously hold.
I think part of the problem here—not the whole problem—is that people mean different things by empathy. Some people use the term as a catch-all term for everything good—compassion, love, morality, wanting to make the world a better place, and so on. I'm certainly not against it in that sense. In fact, it's because I'm for all of those things that I'm against empathy.
Others use it in a narrower sense to describe what people think and the understanding of what people think and feel, sometimes known as "cognitive empathy." I'm not against that either, though I think it's not a force for good or a force for bad. It's amoral. Cognitive empathy is a form of intelligence—sometimes called "social intelligence"—and like any sort of intelligence, it could be used for good or for evil. It's true that somebody who wants to make the world a better place would benefit hugely from knowing how people's minds work, but you would also find the same trait in successful con men, seducers, psychopaths, and torturers.
The sense of empathy that I'm concerned about is the capacity to put yourself in the shoes of other people and feel what they feel. This is actually the same as what the scholars of the 18th century described as "sympathy." Adam Smith, as usual, provides the best description. He says that when we feel this, we place ourselves in someone's situation and become in some measure the same person with him, thence form some idea of his sensations and even feel something, though weaker in degree, not altogether unlike them.
Psychologists have long been interested in this. There's a rich body of neuroscience literature, for instance, that finds—what they do in these experiments is that the subject experiences some sort of pain. They're pricked, they're shocked, they have something hot put on them, they're blasted with loud sounds. We monitor their brain activity when this happens, and then, they watch someone else to be pricked or burnt or blasted or shocked. It turns out that the very same parts of the brain light up in correspondence to this, suggesting that the phrase, "I feel your pain," is in some sense literally true. We do have that mirroring.
Other psychologists have found that when you feel empathy for somebody, when you're asked to put yourself in their shoes, you really are kinder to them. You direct your focus toward them and you tend to care more about their welfare.
Accordingly, a lot of psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists see empathy as critically important for morality. Martin Hoffman at NYU argues that it's the developmental core from which all of morality comes from. Frans de Waal argues that it's the evolutionary core of morality—not just for humans, but you find it in non-human primates as well. His book on the topic is called Age of Empathy. Simon Baron-Cohen, the Cambridge psychologist, is one of the strongest proponents of the importance of empathy. He argues that evil is nothing more and nothing less than empathy erosion.
Of course, lay people, politicians, and theologians jump in as well. Barack Obama has spoken more about empathy than any president of our time. At one point he said: "Look, the biggest deficit we suffer in our country and in the world has nothing to do with money. It's an empathy deficit."
So how could somebody be against this?
The first thing to realize is that no matter what kind of empathy fan you are, you've got to acknowledge that it's not essential to moral judgment. There are all sorts of things we appreciate that are wrong even if we can't find anybody to empathize with—any identifiable victim. Throwing trash out of your car window or cheating on your taxes or contributing to climate change—you can't point to somebody and say, "Well, that person is going to suffer," but you might still view these as morally wrong.
Then there are cases where empathy can clash with other moral values. A wonderful example is by the empathy scholar Dan Batson. He tells a story of an eight-year-old girl named Sheri Summers.
Sheri Summers is going to die. There's nothing you can do about that. But there's a treatment you could give her that will alleviate her suffering and pain. The problem is she's low on the line for treatment. She'll die before she could get it because others kids have been waiting longer and are in even more desperate need.
You ask people: "Would you move her up the line? You're a hospital administrator. You just move her to the top line," knowing that if you do so, some other kid is going to move down the line.
Most people say no. They say: "It's too bad, but if it's a fair list, we should leave things as they are." Another group of people get exactly the same story but are told something. They're asked: "Put yourself in her shoes. Feel her pain." Now, all of a sudden, responses shift, and people want to move her up. Batson points out that this is a case where empathy leads us astray; it overrides other moral motivations that we should be keeping in mind.
My critique is stronger. I think empathy really is like a spotlight. It zooms you in on people, and when it zooms you in on people, you're more likely to help them. I agree with that. But like a spotlight, we could point it in the wrong places, so it's subject to bias and myopia, and like a spotlight, it's insensitive to numbers. It's innumerate and ultimately irrational.
One way to make this case, to kind of start off, is to think about the real-world cases that have captured the imaginations of Americans—our interest, our focus, our concern. Some of us are old enough to remember all these girls who got stuck in wells. Girls would often get stuck in wells, and then the whole community would get together, and it'd be on the front page of Time magazine as we'd try to get them out of the well. Some of us will remember Natalee Holloway in 2005, an attractive white girl who goes on vacationn in Aruba and gets abducted and murdered. Most recently—and most affecting me, given where I live—there was the mass murder in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
I don't want to make light of any of these incidents; they're all extremely important, involving real death and real pain and suffering, but I'm not the first to notice that there's something strange in the focus we give to them.
The psychologist Paul Slovic noticed that when Natalee Holloway went missing, there was 18 times more network coverage devoted to her than to the ongoing crisis in Darfur, which took the lives of tens of thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of people.
Mass shootings like Sandy Hook are undeniably tragedies. We tend to think of mass shootings as a huge problem. It turns out that mass shootings account for about 0.1 percent of U.S. homicides. What this means is that if you could snap your fingers and make it so that there would never be a mass shooting in America again, nobody would ever notice because it would be indistinguishable from statistical noise. But it doesn't feel that way. We see them in the lab as well. There are numerous experiments showing that you care more about one person than eight people if your attention is drawn to the person as an individual.
The same neuroscience studies that show empathic resonance in the brain show that empathy is extremely biased. Somebody like me is going to feel more empathy for the suffering of a white person than a black person, and a man than a woman. All of us feel more empathy for people who are attractive than for people who are ugly. For those people who disgust us, we feel no empathy at all.
Empathy is exquisitely sensitive to coalition and teamwork. There was a European study that tested male soccer fans. They put you in an MRI machine and you watched another man get shocked. In one condition, you're told that this man is a fan of the same soccer team that you support, and then you get this empathic response—the same parts of brain—so your pain lights up. In the other condition, you're told: "This man is a fan of the opposing soccer team." What you find is a drop in empathy, but parts of the brain associated with pleasure start to light up.
Now, I want to deal with the objections. An immediate objection is: "Fine. Empathy can be innumerate, it could be biased, it's imperfect, it's better than nothing, it doesn't do any harm."
But it can do harm, and it's not hard to think of examples. I'll start with a hypothetical example. Suppose there's a vaccine program in New York, and a little girl gets extremely sick and dies. Most likely, the vaccine program will be shut down. It will be shut down even if it were to turn out that this program was actually saving the lives of many kids because you could feel tremendous empathy for the family of the girl who suffers and for the girl herself, but you can't feel empathy for the statistical fact that people would have died but didn't.
Take a real world case of this. Some of you may have heard the name Willy Horton. When Mike Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts, he had a furlough program. In the course of the furlough program, a man named Willy Horton, an African-American man, was released and he went on to assault somebody and rape somebody else. This program was seen as an embarrassing failure and was immediately shut down. Dukakis apologized for it, and this came up in the election against George Bush, which Dukakis lost. It was seen as a humiliating failure.
It turns out that analyses, even at the time, suggested that the furlough program was working, that is, because of the program, there were fewer assaults, fewer murders, and fewer rapes. But our emotions are insensitive to that sort of data. It is easy to feel tremendous empathy for someone who is assaulted or raped, but you can't feel empathy for some statistical abstraction of people who would have been raped but weren't.
We think of issues like foreign aid, which I know many people here are engaged with. As people know, there's a lot of controversy over the extent to which foreign aid is actually helping and the extent to which it's hurting and a lot of criticisms about the way empathic appeals are used to direct funding. There all sorts of examples about this.
One example raised by Linda Polman concerns warlords in Sierra Leone where when asked, "Why do you chop off the limbs of children?" they basically answered, "We do it for you." They pointed out that they get a lot of support from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and government agencies that come to their country; they take taxes from these people. But nobody comes unless they give them an atrocity. Our empathy for the children is cynically exploited by evil actors in the world, and there are many cases in which this happens.
Take another case: child beggars. Child beggars are all over the place in India and Africa, and it's almost irresistible for an affluent Westerner to give money to them. It turns out that when you do so, you increase the problem. You support a criminal organization that enslaves and often maims many children.
I was talking about this on a radio show even before I got into my empathy book. I was talking about morality with a pastor who was on the show. I raised this as an example of how our emotions may lead us astray. She was shocked and said, "I love giving to beggars. It's very important. It establishes this intimacy and this empathic connection with other people. It's far more intimate and human than just going to oxfam.org and dropping money into there." I'm never fast on my feet, so I probably just said, "Oh, okay. I've got to think about that."
But, then, years later, I started to think about that. And so, here's my response, somewhat late: It depends on what you want. If you want to feel a buzz, a warm glow, a feeling of gratification, and real warmth in your heart, by all means, give to child beggars. If you want to make the world a better place, then help people do something else.
Empathy can be a catalyst for violence, and this was again pointed out by Adam Smith, who notes that when you think about atrocities, we often think in terms of hatred and dehumanization—all true. But one engine for atrocity is the empathy we feel for victims.
This is not ancient history: the invasions of Iraq and the more recent bombing of Syria. Whenever politicians in a democratic society want to incite anger and hatred against a group and want to motivate a group to war, they tells stories about victims—sometimes true, sometimes not true—and our feelings for the victims. I remember, for instance, that the horrific stories of Saddam Hussein's monster sons and the atrocities they've committed energized us, and our empathy them energizes us to want to strike out.
We see this in the very current political climate. A lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric isn't just broad statistical claims; it's not hatred, per se, directed against immigrants. And you see this, for instance, in the work of Ann Coulter whose book Adios, America was the motivation for Donald Trump's policies—they tell stories about the suffering of people. Her book is all about rape. It's about rape and child rape. And it makes you feel tremendously bad for the victims and tremendously angry toward the people who caused their suffering—in her view, Mexicans, Muslims, and other immigrants. Empathy can be weaponized, and it often is.
We study this in the lab. We did an experiment where we told people about an imaginary atrocity in either Egypt or Kenya where journalists are kidnapped or tortured, and then they're killed. And then, we asked people: "What should the American government do about that?" They were told: "You could do nothing, you could negotiate, you could do air strikes, ground invasion." Then we measured people's empathy. As we predicted—and this had been found in other labs as well —the more empathy you have, the more aggressive you get, the more willing you are to strike back because you feel the pain of the victims so much more intensely.
The second objection is: Somebody could say, "Well, you're right about public policy issues. But isn't empathy critical for certain relationships, particularly relationships between doctors and patients, nurses, therapists, and so on?" I think, again, it depends what you mean by empathy. A lot of places, including Yale Medical School—I work at Yale—have what's called "empathy training." I have nothing against empathy training because when you look at it, empathy training is basically to get doctors to listen to their patients and treat them with respect and everything.
But empathy—in the sense that I'm concerned about real empathy—is nothing but a minus. For doctors to really feel the suffering of their patients leads to burnout. The best medical professionals understand their patients and care about their patients, but they don't feel their pain.
It's not good for the patient, either. If you could forgive me an anecdote, my uncle was ill last year with cancer. We were in Boston. I went with him to see different doctors. The sort of doctors he got along well with, he liked, were ones not who felt his anxiety, not who mirrored his anxiety, his worry, and his stress, but were respectful, confident, clear, and honest, ones who didn't echo his suffering but rather responded to it.
Certainly, this is the case for therapists. Therapists have to understand their clients, and they have to feel compassion for them. They have to know what they're going through. But anybody who thinks therapists should actually feel their clients' pain doesn't understand therapy. If I go to my shrink and I'm really anxious—"This book will never sell"—I don't want her to get anxious. I don't want to her to say, "Oh my god, we're in big trouble." Then I have two problems, not one. What I want is for her to look at me and say, "So how does that make you feel?" and basically have the sort of distance that's part of any good therapist's training.
I'll also add that the same thing holds for parents. If my teenage son is deeply anxious because of girlfriend problems or because he left his homework for the last minute and it's due tomorrow, as a good parent, it's not good for me to get anxious, too, for me to feel anxious, worried, and concerned. I want to say, "Dude, let's step back. Let's talk, let's make a plan." I want to be calm.
I think the same thing holds true for friendship as well. Cicero pointed this out: "A good friend diminishes sadness and doubles happiness." You don't want to mirror people; you want to respond to them with love, compassion, and caring.
A third concern about an anti-empathy stance is that people without empathy are monsters, they're psychopaths. It's true that psychopaths—you can do a psychopath test; you could all do it online—one of the features is low empathy. But it's also true that of all the features of psychopathy, low empathy has zero predictive power when it comes to predicting bad behavior toward people. What really matters in predicting whether a psychopath is going to reoffend are issues like aggression and lack of self-control. The same is true for you. There have now been dozens, maybe hundreds, of studies looking at the connection between low empathy—because some of you have very low empathy—and aggression: sexual aggression, verbal aggression, and physical aggression. And the punchline is: There is no connection at all.
Again, if I wanted to figure out which one of you is likely to jump me on the way out of here and take my wallet and my notes, giving you all an empathy test will tell me nothing. The test I would give you: I'd ask you two questions, actually, to figure out which one of you is likely to harm me. The first one is kind of obvious: "Have you ever harmed anybody in the past? Have you ever committed a crime? Have you ever committed a violent crime? Have you ever beaten up a speaker leaving the Carnegie Council?" The second question is: "How's your self-control?" Basically, a lot of violent crimes are not due to a lack of empathy; it's due to the inability to control our impulses and our appetites.
The final objection is: "Okay, empathy may have all of its problems. It may cause harm in the world. But without empathy, we would be terrible people. You need some sort of kick in the pants to get you to do good in this world." I agree with that totally. The point is as old as the philosopher David Hume, who pointed out that it's not enough to rationally figure out the right thing to do. You also have to have some sort of motivation—some emotional push—to get you to do it.
But what I want to suggest is there are alternatives to empathy. Our moral psychologies are very rich with all sorts of moral motivations—there's guilt, there's shame, there are concerns about our reputation, there's an honest desire for it to be a better world. I'm most interested in the distinction between empathy and compassion, and I don't want to get too caught up in the words. People use the words in different ways. These are just the ways I'm calling them. You could call them something else, but the distinction is very important.
I actually got connected to this distinction when I was at a conference in London. I'm at the registration booth at the hotel, and I see this guy, this monk, in saffron robes. He's Matthieu Ricard, who is a very famous meditator. He's so-called "the "happiest man alive"—that's what it says in Time magazine—which means if you put him and me together in a room, you'd average out one normal man.
I go up to him in my normal smooth way. I say, "You're Matthieu Ricard, the happiest man alive." Because he's a monk, he was very polite to me, and we go for tea. He asked me what I'm up to, and I tell him the truth. I say, "I'm writing a book against empathy." I felt very awkward doing this, like I'm telling a rabbi, "I'm writing a book against Shabbos."
But his response surprised me. His response was, "Oh, empathy is terrible. Of course, you should be against empathy. Too obvious to write about."
It turned out that—and I hadn't known about this—he had been engaged in the very famous research program with the neuroscientist Tania Singer—it was just starting; it's been developing like crazy over the last few years—which carefully distinguishes empathy, which is feeling other people's pain, being motivated by the experience of their suffering, from compassion or loving kindness, where you care for people, but you don't feel their pain, you don't suffer. They did experiment after experiment after experiment. They find that when you're in an empathic state, it activates different parts of your brain than when you're in a compassionate state. But more to the point, they find that compassion invigorates you. It leads to more helping. Empathy exhausts. Compassion charges you up. It makes people better helpers, more efficient helpers, and kinder helpers.
More recently, there's been work by David DeSteno and his colleagues at Northwestern University on mindfulness meditation. There are all sorts of claims about mindfulness meditation, its health benefits, and so on. I think we should be conscious about them, but they have a finding which has been replicated several times, which is that it makes you nicer. It makes you kinder to strangers. Nobody knows why. The theory that they advance is that mindfulness meditation makes you kinder because it shuts down the empathic centers of your brain. If I'm in a mindfulness state and you're suffering, I don't feel your pain as much, which liberates me to be kind and loving to you without adverse feelings.
Sometimes people get the idea that I'm against empathy. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm a big fan of empathy. Empathy is a wonderful source of pleasure. The empathy with people who are having a great time can be terrific. I think it is an essential part of sports and an essential part of sex. I think one of the joys in having children is being able to take an experience you've had a hundred times before—like fireworks or a hot fudge sundae or a Hitchcock movie—and experience them all over again for the first time through the eyes of another person. I think empathy is at the core of the pleasure of fiction, of TV programs, of plays, of movies, where an empathic connection with characters—even bad characters like the Tony Sopranos and the Walter Whites of the world—give us this immense pleasure.
My problem with empathy is as a moral guide. I hate terminological arguments. I don't care what you call it. But my argument is that feeling the suffering of other people, experiencing their pain—many people view this as the core of morality. I think this is mistaken. I think it makes us worse people. Empathy is morally corrosive, and we're better off without it. So I want to encourage all of you to join me in the crusade against empathy.
QUESTION: I'm Diane Rosenstein, and until recently I was the director of social work at a city hospital.
I'm curious about two things: One is empathic failure and your thoughts on that; the other is your uncle.
Your uncle, when he went to the doctors and the doctors he liked, I think it's the doctor who listens—you didn't mention anything about listening—because I do feel that you don't want someone to feel it. You want somebody to say, "Tell me what it feels like," and then you want to be open to listening about it. The empathic connections we did in hospitals, we found that the residents and the newer physicians actually were getting burnt out when they were not feeling that surge you feel when you feel you are there with somebody—sometmes firemen describe this feeling that they have done what they needed to do—and the less connection they felt to their patients, the less they liked their jobs.
Those who really still enjoyed the story—listening—were the ones who sort of went on until their 60s and 70s being doctors. I just wanted to mention that.
PAUL BLOOM: Those are great points. I'll take them in the reverse order. One of the goals of my book and my argument here is to get us to sort of pull apart different things that would normally flow together.
I'm against empathy, but there are things that are related to empathy which I'm not at all against, as you point out, that are very powerful. I have a friend who is a clinical psychologist, and she sees patient after patient for 50 minutes-pause-50 minutes-pause—and these are patients who are in dire straits. These are people who are having serious problems.
I said to her, "Isn't it terrible? Doesn't it exhaust you and kill you?" She said, "I find it invigorating." She said what you said, which is, "I love their stories. I love listening and understanding them and coming to appreciate them. It charges me up."
The human connection—I think you are entirely right. All I would say—and I think we agree on this—is the feeling of other people's pain, the emotional empathy, is harmful in this case. I'm against that, but I'm all for understanding.
The case of empathic failure is interesting. It's the one thing I didn't talk about because it's sort of a different talk and a different issue. There's arrogance behind claims about empathy. I'm often told in the pages of The New York Times and elsewhere that I should, as a white man, empathize with people, with trans children who are bullied; I should empathize with black kids who are afraid of the cops. I'll tell you the truth: I can't. I think it's even arrogant to assume that for my situation I can, that I could really know what it's like.
I think that with these empathic failures—people fail at this. They make big mistakes. We could talk about some mistakes people make because they get other people wrong. I think a better way to do it is to listen to what people have to say—let's say, trans individuals or African Americans—and then apply principles of morality, justice, and fairness without assuming that you need to get into their skin and know what their lives are like.
It's basically two answers but making the same point: the importance of some understanding but not trying too hard to get the empathic connection.
QUESTION: Richard Horowitz.
I think in your presentation you used the phrase "statistical abstraction," that people can't empathize for a statistical abstraction because nothing has happened yet. But let's say someone finds that statistical abstraction to be very disturbing because it could have happened, so compassion wouldn't apply because no one has been hurt. Would that feeling of finding it disturbing be considered empathy? How would you define that?
PAUL BLOOM: That's a good question. I'm breaking things up in a little bit of a different way. My sense of compassion, which is what they're studying in the lab, is you don't need a single individual to feel compassion.
Empathy is like a spotlight. If I feel empathy for somebody, it has to be a specific person—it could be an imagined person, but it has to be a specific person—to feel their pain. But you could feel compassion for people who are not yet born. You could feel compassion for victims of a natural disaster in sort of a more diffuse sense. Our psychology is that you could care about people without zooming in on individuals.
Global warming is a great case. Nobody cares about global warming and climate change. At an emotional level, it seems to bother us not at all. There are some exceptional people who intellectually worry that this could be a huge crisis. But at a gut level, it doesn't strike us because there's no child there, there's nobody you could point to. There's no villain there, too. It makes a horrible narrative. I think compassion can apply. I think what motivates us in those cases is honest concern about millions—maybe billions—of people in the future. Sometimes—to sort of a follow up on your point—if you have a generalized statistical concern, you could imagine or envision a specific individual. This is what people try to do when they try to motivate us to care about different issues.
I know one charity, in trying to get people to worry about climate change, has a big picture of a polar bear that is standing in the ice. And you could try to do things like that. But for the most part when it comes to problems with diffuse outcomes —budget problems, international terrorism, climate change—empathy is just silent. And to an extent we do care about these things—and many of us do—that's because we use other cognitive faculties.
QUESTION: Rita Hauser.
You use a lot of terms that to me are all kind of mixed up. I'd like to come back to the doctor from my experience as a lawyer. When I was a young lawyer, I was sent to represent clients at Sing Sing. I got to meet some people who did some awful things—awful by anybody's standard—but they were my clients. I had to learn how to respect them and try to understand what they did and give them the best representation. Over time, I found that the more you could stand back and not be judgmental, the better you were as a professional. I think any good professional will tell you that.
When you talk about empathy, I often think about it in terms of judgments—you suspend judgments. It's not for me to say that this is right or wrong or good or bad. If I have to represent someone, I help them.
There are a lot of different things that are mixed up in what you have to say. I, like you, don't find empathy a very good concept. I find understanding, tolerance, suspension of judgment—why did they do that? Of course, human beings are capable of doing terrible things. You have to understand. I like words like "understand" and "suspension of judgment" more than this phrase "empathy."
That's only a comment. I don't know what you think about it.
PAUL BLOOM: I don't think we're disagreeing. Again, there are different words to use for different things, so whatever one wants to call it—I'm clear about what I'm objecting to, and I think we're objecting to the same thing.
I'll push back a little bit, which is, I'm all in favor of understanding, but I'm also all in favor of moral judgment. We could understand how certain professionals—certainly lawyers—would do their best work by suspending moral judgments. But I'm not a lawyer, and so I think in other roles it's perfectly fine for me to say to somebody: "You know, I really understand you. I understand why you did that and why you voted that way. I understand this. But I think you did something really wrong." Certain professions, I think, have to submerge their judgment but I think the rest of us in real life can and maybe should keep it up.
QUESTIONER [RITA HAUSER]: But then you have a question of what's wrong, what's right, who decides that, where does it come from? Some behaviors that a lot of us think are perfectly okay, vast millions out there think it's not okay.
PAUL BLOOM: It's a really interesting issue, and there are people who are sort of moral relativists who would say, "Who's to know? Is there anything truly wrong?" and so on.
Again, I'm not one of them. I can't be one of them because I'm arguing that empathy is a moral mistake which implies that there are moral goods and moral bads. It implies—as I tell my stories—that you agree with me that it would be wrong to give more money to somebody because of the color of her skin, or it'd be wrong to save one person at the expense of eight.
I am backing up on moral judgments—and you and I may disagree about the moral judgments—but I'm more of a moral realist. I think there are moral facts. This is something which I sort of share with the pro-empathy crowd. We disagree, of course, about empathy, but we agree that there's good and bad. We just have disagreements over how best to pursue it.
That's a fascinating issue. Thank you.
QUESTION: Allen Young.
I couldn't help while listening to your talk but think maybe that explains what happened on November 8 because so many of the "liberal elites" have enormous amounts of rational compassion, but it was Donald Trump who empathized with all those people in the Rust Belt who lost their jobs.
PAUL BLOOM: Yes. You're raising a lot of issues. By law, in any discussion of longer than 40 minutes, Donald Trump's name has to be mentioned.
"Donald Trump" and "empathy" are not words that naturally go together. But I think you are right. I think Donald Trump was—forget about how much empathy the man himself has as a character trait; that's a separate question—he is very good at stoking people's empathy for political gain. I mentioned he talked about the crimes committed by immigrants, but also basically if you listen to one of his rallies, he will get you to feel strongly for people who have been lost and abandoned by American elites—people in the Rust Belt, for instance. He's done well at that. He does seem to do a very good job of exactly what you're saying—conveying empathy for the people in his audience. They feel like he really knows them.
It is sort of strange because, of course, his life situation is as different from theirs as you can imagine. But more than Hillary Clinton, I think he's seen by his supporters as empathic.
My argument here was about empathy as a moral tool. When it comes to you and I doing the right thing in our lives, should we rely on empathy? And I argued no. But if it were a talk on how to be a successful politician, the answer would be different, and empathy as a tool like stoking up anger and resentment—that's a powerful tool. I agree with you.
QUESTION: Bob Palmer.
I've been interested and concerned in the decline in childhood immunization. I wonder to what extent is this just the inability of people to process scientific information, or to what extent does misplaced empathy for people with autistic children contribute to that?
PAUL BLOOM: It's a great case because I think there are many things going on here including, among other things, a sort of social signaling where vaccination has turned out to be almost a sort of a political shibboleth for who you're supporting for president and what your social views are. But I also think empathy plays a role.
I think my hypothetical example speaks to that, which is: A child who is harmed through vaccination is an extremely salient event, and there's an enormous amount to empathize with. This child came into the doctor's office fine and now is severely autistic. It's a horror story that you could resonate with.
The benefits of vaccination are, in some way, emphatically invisible. There are terrible things that didn't happen and we don't process them to the same extent.
Benjamin Franklin actually wrote about this with regard to vaccination. He talked about it psychologically: "How would it feel if you gave your child a vaccine, and your child was to grow to be incredibly sick? How would you feel?" Compared to not giving a vaccine and your child becoming sick, it's not quite the same; you didn't make your child sick. There are different things going on here. But I think your case is a perfect example of how our emotions lead us awry as well as how cynical politicians and demagogues exploit them to lead us awry.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
A comment and then a question. First of all, I think you referenced this, so it might be good to see you draw it out a little bit more. With Trump, is it not possible to confuse his empathy with the fact that he shares or manipulates their anger? Those are two very different things.
Second, on the whole issue of empathy, I've been very amused—and that's the only word I can think of—at the reaction of the press after Trump won with people like David Brooks saying, "Gee whiz, I have to get out more," going to some tiny little town in Oklahoma or something and talking to some gas station attendant and then saying, "Well, you know, I've been missing out on a lot." Or Nick Kristof who takes people on junkets to Africa and doesn't bother to go to Rahway, New Jersey to see what might be upsetting people. The bottom line is that this show of empathy that we're seeing now on the part of the mainstream press—they just missed the story. Now it seems to me that they're shifting the focus to the fact they didn't have enough empathy for people.
I don't know how you feel about those two comments, but I'd like your response.
PAUL BLOOM: Those are thoughtful comments. Regarding empathy and anger, you're right that they are different; they have different effects. I have friends who think I'm right to be against empathy but that anger actually has more moral force, that the great revolutions of our time, the moral revolutions, are motivated by righteous anger.
I think, since you referenced Trump, that anger and empathy are actually often very much yoked together. If you ask people, "Why are you angry at that group?"—whatever the group is—they'll often tell you a story about empathy. This happens in the most horrific cases. The lynchings of blacks in the American South were typically motivated by stories of white women being raped, and their suffering was a catalyst for the anger. You've got anger without empathy and empathy without anger, but they are connected. Politicians who want to marginalize, at best, some group will use this connection fluidly.
Your other question about the debate about empathy for Trump voters—Jamelle Bouie of Slate has an article where the headline is: "They Don't Deserve Your Empathy: Save Your Empathy for People Who Need It." [Editor's note: The headline of the article is: "There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter." The subhead reads: "People voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes. They don’t deserve your empathy."] I think that the Brooks and Kristof thing—there's a point there, but I wouldn't frame it in terms of empathy.
I imagine there are very few Trump voters in this room, just playing up with the stereotypes. I know many Republicans, but I know very few Trump supporters. I do think, in support of those people you quoted, that more understanding would make, and would have made, a huge difference; more understanding of what America is like and what people want.
Many people of more liberal persuasion were totally blindsided by the success of Trump—I know I was. It's because they didn't understand how roughly half of the American voters think.
I don't think empathy is the solution. I don't think I have to feel the pain of a Trump voter any more than a Trump voter has to feel my pain. I think that's foolish, self-indulgent, and counterproductive. To go back to the point raised before, I think more understanding of what's going on with these people—why is there such divergence of views—can only be a good thing.
QUESTION: I'm Marlin Mattson from Weill Cornell, a physician, psychiatrist.
It was interesting in terms of the presentation because for me, I think you probably intended it to be very provocative. That was how it came across. When I saw the title "Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion," it was like a shot in front of the bow of my ship. That's how it felt as I saw it.
As I listened to the discussion and the questions, it's helpful because there are so many things that you have thoughtfully put together that it really deserves time where you sit down with medical educators and psychology educators, with groups of physicians, groups of social workers, and groups of other communities and organization people, and begin to go through these points one by one because many of the things that you've said I don't agree with, but we really need a place where we can have a dialogue. I think that's important.
What we've done here today, I think, is a very important first step because, for me, like one of the comments that was made earlier, there's confusion about what empathy is. In many ways, what you've said about empathy is different than the empathy I know. It interrelates with sympathy. That's another critical thing that you said very little about.
Yes, compassion is critical. For us working in health care, empathy leads to compassion; empathy leads to the ability to listen and to work with certain people who don't have an emotional response to you, and on and on and on. Empathy is absolutely one of the pillars or underpinnings of what I do. I know it because I've used it for the last 50 years. We involve medical students and residents, in fact, in this. We don't necessarily actually feel the pain, but we begin to understand it, and we can put ourselves in that situation.
Yes, you could be overwhelmed by the kinds of things you hear. We have to really try to put ourselves into the position, and it allows us then to really do all the things that we do. I could go on, but this is just sort of a drop in the bucket.
PAUL BLOOM: I like your point a lot. In some way, it comes back to terminological issues. I have a lot of discussion where somebody says, "I'm all in favor of empathy," but then it turns out that we are in some ways talking past each other because people use the term "empathy" in a million different ways.
But then there's real disagreement. I'm talking about empathy in the sense of feeling other people's suffering and feeling their experiences, and I've argued that this is not good at all, particularly for people in your profession. And I've spoken to people in your profession—I actually have some written dialogues in the journal Boston Review—and they don't all buy it.
Some of them argue: "No, I need the sort of taste of someone else's experience as part of it. I can't get too immersed in it, but I need a little bit of it." Others argue: "I don't need it at all, but at one point I would have had to have it. Developmentally, empathy is what gets things going. The distant compassion is all well and good, but you don't get to that without empathy."
I happen to believe that both views are mistaken. I think that the first claim—that you need empathy as a doctor, as a therapist—is confusing an understanding of what's going on with another person with your own experience. And I think, as a developmental psychologist, the claim that empathy is the catalyst for morality is almost sort of a holy writ in my field, and it turns out upon scrutiny it falls apart.
Look at one-year-olds and two-year-olds and three-year-olds, which is what my lab at Yale does, and you find plenty of evidence for kindness, concern, and compassion. The empathy we're talking about is a fairly late development; it comes in slow and unreliably. It might be actually that it's the other way around, that once you have some level of compassion, empathy might sort of blossom from it. Or maybe these are two independent neural systems.
But I will step back to your main point, which is, I totally agree that particularly when I make claims that go into the realms of people's specific expertise—and I've also talked with people interested in philanthropy, foreign policy, and certainly therapy—then, there are specific engagements which I've been having which are very useful, and I hope to continue to have them. It's an empathic response. [Laughter]
JOANNE MYERS: Can compassion or empathy be taught, or is it something inherent within, like you said, babies can sort of identify but not necessarily—
PAUL BLOOM: That's a good question. God forbid, we shouldn't teach empathy. We have too much of it already, but can compassion be taught?
We know there are individual differences in empathy and in compassion. Some of you are highly empathic, some of you less so. And you were maybe just a large percent born that way. Some of you have compassion or less so. We do know that compassion can be taught in a way. The most concrete example of this is mindfulness meditation. It's the one thing that really does seem to increase people's compassion.
But in some way, I think that the right way to deal with the problems of empathy isn't at an individual level but more at a social level. Take racist bias. Racist bias is part of our psychology no more, no less, than empathy. What do we do if we think racist bias isn't a good idea? One answer is: Well, we'll just try hard not to be racists. That doesn't really work that well. What else can we do? You could set up cultural norms such that relying on racist bias is something shameful. Even the worst of American mainstream politicians would never say, "You should do this because it will really make the black people suffer, and wouldn't that be great?" They may dog whistle, but it's just not done anymore. But it used to be done.
There are also even technological mechanisms. My favorite example of this is regarding sexist bias. Psychologists love this story: Symphony orchestras used to be mostly male, and this is because in auditions men did better. Both male and female judges said men did better; men had stronger styles. They said, "We're not trying to be sexists here. They're just better." Somebody figured out this extraordinarily clever technological trick. They had people audition behind a screen. They didn't make people's sexism go away, but they were smart enough to set it up where it couldn't apply. All of a sudden, the difference went away.
I think smart people have been describing how to do this regarding charitable donations where many of us don't give to charities that have the prettiest pictures, but rather we give to charities that we believe make the most difference. There are websites that look at the impact of charities, and it's complicated, but they try to think their way through. For foreign policy, there are arguments that there should be pre-established triggers for action that don't rely on the color of the skin of the person and the kind of accent they have and so on.
There's a field I was introduced to as I was writing my book called "disaster theory" which concerns, in the United States' case, when does the U.S. Federal Government intervene in disasters. As you'd expect, they intervene more when there's an election coming up, they intervene more in swing states, and all sorts of biases. But people involved in disaster theory say, "Is there any way to formalize this so that our biases can have less sway?"
I know this sounds sort of cold, calculating, and administrative. I just happen to believe that cold, calculating, and administrative leads to a much better world than hot-blooded and passionate when it comes to policy decisions.
JOANNE MYERS: I would disagree on one level because your passionate talk this morning really incited us to think more about the issue.
I thank you very much for being with us. I wish you all a very happy holiday.