Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, is a controversial book written by Canadian American psychologist Paul Bloom who is currently a professor at Yale University. What makes this book controversial is Bloom’s targeting of the typically supported concept of empathy. The form of empathy that he is primarily interested in is “the act of feeling what you believe other people feel- experiencing what they experience,” (3). It is also important to note how Bloom emphasizes throughout the book that this is not an attack on empathy or an argument that people should act selfishly or immorally. Rather this is about how empathy can cause people to do more harm than good compared to if they acted without it. While this book is filled with thought provoking points, there are three chapters that truly changed my perspective on empathy.
The first chapter that is important to discuss is the one titled “The Anatomy of Empathy.” As Bloom mentions in this chapter, many people look for scientific evidence, such as brain scans, before seriously considering a claim about things that affect the mind. For this reason, he not only describes how neuroscientists go about studying empathy, but he also gives examples of studies that have been done along with what they found. Bloom identifies three major findings of empathy research, the first being that an empathetic response to another person’s experience activates the same area of the brain that would be active if one were to have that same experience. This occurrence is due to what neuroscientists call “mirror neurons,” which became the subject of many experiments following the discovery. Another major finding was that empathetic responses are influenced by the empathizers thoughts of the person they are empathizing with and how they judge the situation that person is in. The last major finding Bloom mentions is the distinguishment between cognitive empathy, understanding another person, and emotional empathy, feeling what another person feels. This chapter helps the reader gain a better understanding of the science of empathy.
After supplying readers with various scientific studies on the way empathy affects their minds, Bloom goes on to explain how empathy works in different parts of people’s lives and how it can be problematic. One aspect of life he applies the concept of empathy to is politics. In this chapter, Bloom looks at how Liberals seem to possess more empathy than Conservatives because of where they stand on different political issues. He mentions various studies that have been done to test this correlation, such as an online study of about seven thousand people that found that liberals are significantly more empathetic than conservatives. Despite all the research Bloom brings up in this chapter, his purpose is to show the reader that these political affiliations do not depict difference in empathy but difference in who they empathize with. Even further, he points out that the politics of empathy “drives concerns about people in the here and now,” which can be beneficial in a short-term sense but not long-term (126). Rather Bloom suggests an analysis of moral obligation and possible consequences before making decisions for the future.
The next chapter, “Intimacy,” had the most impact on my personal opinion of empathy. In this chapter, Bloom touches on how having too much empathy can affect a person’s relationships but also the person empathizing as well. One example he uses is that of a doctor/patient relationship, where he points out that while a patient would want their doctor to sympathize with what they are experiencing they do not want them to be too wrapped up in feeling what they are feeling that the doctor is unable to do their job effectively. Bloom also gave an example of how experiencing too much empathy may lead to what is called “empathetic distress,” which is suffering because of the suffering of others. Prior to reading this chapter, I was not aware of the negative effects that empathy could have, but it does make sense that experiencing too much of what other people are feeling could take away from our ability to help others or the quality of our own mental health.
Throughout his book, Bloom explains the many reasons behind why he refers to empathy as being biased, parochial, and an overall bad guide of morality. He does so through the means of copious experimental research, humor, and sensible reasoning. At no point was Bloom attacking the concept of empathy, as clearly shown in the conclusion of this book where he touches on multiple pleasurable aspects of empathy. This book did not make me view empathy in a negative light, but instead it opened my eyes to the assortment of alternatives that do not carry the same consequences of empathy. Paul Bloom forced me out of the idealistic bubble that often surrounds the concept of empathy, hopefully it does the same for others who read this book.
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