Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Against Empathy Book Report

Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom explores aspects of empathy, as well as its pros and cons.  The author is clearly against empathy.  He acknowledges that, generally, people think that being against empathy is inherently wrong.  However, it is important to look at things from different perspectives.  For example, empathy has different definitions depending on who you ask.

A key point is that people tend to be inherently selfish and irrational.  Also, empathy can expose our biases.  Another argument against empathy is that other things cause good actions besides empathy.  These include self-satisfaction and appearing respectable.  Furthermore, empathy can have intended consequences that are detrimental down the road (Bloom, 2016).

My favorite topic to read about in the book involved consequentialism.  Bloom states that “One way to try to be good and do good is to attend to the consequences of one’s actions” (Bloom, 2016).  Unfortunately, he also points out that humans are not the best at doing this.  We often do not think things through enough.  Even a simple kind act – such as giving money to a homeless person – can spiral and cause bad outcomes.  

In class, we covered extrinsic motivation and intrinsic value.  People want to feel good, to feel rewarded for their actions.  In the book, it is mentioned that people often do nice – supposedly empathic – things because of the reward: they will feel better about themselves, others will look at them in a better light, etc.  

Currently, the situation involving Ukraine is devastating.  Some are eager to donate.  Others do good by spreading awareness on apps like Tik Tok.  One way to boost donations is a tactic suggested in the book: use rationality to get people to show empathy.  For example, people are more likely to donate when they’re donating to one person instead of thousands, the recipient is a child, the recipient is someone they care about already, and if the recipient is cute (this is specifically the case with animals but can apply to humans).  So, those collecting money for those struggling in Ukraine might benefit from showing pictures of suffering children in their advertisements.  We can even test this by simply showing a picture.  Who would you rather help in a time of need: a cute pouting child with tears in their eyes, or the man a few cubicles away from you in the office?


Bloom, P. (2016). Against empathy: The case for rational compassion. Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

- Jennifer Guallpa

1 comment:

  1. Jennifer, I definitely hear you on that, “Against Empathy” written by Paul Bloom has a lot of controversy self-imposed by Paul Bloom. Although he tries to be circular in his argument he circles back to his indifferences and his individual thought process. And yes, you are 100% right that empathy has different definitions depending on who that you ask. He goes into painful details about all aspects of empathy but then shoots all of his reasons down in a self-defeating manner. This seems to be in every chapter where he first supports Empathy then turns away from it in a 360-degree fashion. What I mean by this is I feel that he is playing the Devils Advocate with this book and is not clear to me as to why he is doing this. Your key point here is valid, and I agree, people can be inherently selfish and irrational and empathy expose’s our bias’s, but I believe that Paul Bloom is using this as a cop-out to further argue his point, being he is not very rational and is hiding behind a false persona. What I mean about this is that he may not be a very good source on writing on behalf of empathy. All of is attempts in sum remind me of a twilight episode named “A piano in the house”. Check it out… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7H5yApicAI&t=30s I know it seems like a weird analogy but check it out and give me your thoughts If you like.