Against Empathy [A Review]

Against Empathy, by Paul Bloom

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The title caught my eye when I was combing the bookstore for something interesting to read over the holidays.

The first thought that came to my mind was in the form of a big question mark. In terms of book-shopping, that’s a good thing for the author, because that means I might be curious enough to buy the book, and I did, hoping I would learn something new from it.

Right from the beginning, Bloom defines empathy as simply feeling what another person is feeling. Period. It has nothing to do with kindness nor morality. So when I see someone else in pain and I feel empathy for that person, I’m simply feeling his pain, but that does not necessarily motivate me to help him. 

While Bloom writes clearly, it took me a while to digest his arguments, because they are against the common belief and assumptions about empathy being a good thing. In fact, I had to constantly remind myself about how Bloom defines empathy. I wouldn’t say I have totally internalized the arguments in there, but I think I’ve learnt a few things:

  1. Empathy is actually not good for personal well-being. If I have a strong sense of empathy, it means I tend to always let others’ feelings overwhelm me, and that’s probably not a good thing for my emotional and mental health. 
  2. Empathy in a relationship is not actually a good thing either. This seems to be against our gut instinct – isn’t it good if my spouse can feel what I feel and be more understanding towards me? Well, Bloom says understanding does not necessarily require empathy, only cognitive empathy. Imagine you are feeling upset. Would you prefer an equally upset spouse who can feel your pain, and hence is also incapacitated to do anything, or one who just understands without feeling your pain, and is therefore calm enough to offer you compassion, consolation and help? 
  3. Empathy is a good servant but never a good master. It’s like anger, and Bloom argues empathy is probably also a cause of some of the violence and cruelty we see in the world, especially when people decide to take justice into their own hands.

I think the sub-title covers what the book is about more than the main title. Bloom is urging us to use reason to think through moral issues instead of letting emotions lead us. Rational compassion will make this world a better place, not just empathy.

I don’t think I do Bloom justice by trying to explain some of his arguments in a few sentences here, and especially when the proposition is so controversial. All I can say is that I felt his pain when I tried to put his points into a few words on this page. 😐 

VERDICT: If your curiosity is piqued by the title like I am, or if you are a psychology buff, this should be a fairly well-written and thought-provoking read.


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