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.