A few days after reading Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, I was stopped in Washington, D.C., traffic. A disheveled, crippled man made his way between the traffic lanes past my car with a hand-written cardboard sign identifying himself as a disabled veteran needing money. In that brief moment I had to make a decision.
Occasionally I give to those who ask without thinking much about it. This time I didn’t. I had just read Bloom’s book and thought of shelters and programs in the city to assist homeless disabled veterans like this man. It was a head vs. heart moment. Following Bloom’s advice, I went with my head.
My unpredictable responses to pan-handlers is the dilemma Bloom describes in Against Empathy, as he argues for rational compassion. For many well-intentioned people empathy is a natural response, an emotion defined by Bloom as “the act of feeling what you believe other people feel – experiencing what they experience.”
Rational compassion, on the other hand he defines as understanding and responding to human suffering wherever it exists, in Bloom’s words: “simply caring for people and wanting them to thrive.”
Citing many studies Bloom seeks to prove that while emotions may motivate us to do good, empathy may be, and often is counterproductive, if not harmful.
At that red light I wondered if by giving to the man in the traffic I would be encouraging others to beg on the street rather than take advantage of the comprehensive programs to help homeless, destitute people? I helped start such a program in Washington for that purpose, and I continue to support the Community of Hope and other compassionate ministries around the world. I think that is a better way to give.
Early in the book, Bloom recognizes that arguing against empathy is a hard sell. He notes over 1,500 books listed on Amazon with empathy in the title. Yet as he demonstrates, empathy, which by definition is selective and biased, leads us to overlook greater needs.
For example, the outpouring of response to the horrific massacre of twenty children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. A warehouse was needed to store all the unneeded and unwanted toys sent to the surviving children along with thousands of dollars to an otherwise wealthy neighborhood. While, as Bloom points out, few of us are aware that more African-American children are murdered every year in Chicago than were killed at Sandy Hook.
Empathy “muddles our judgment,” the Yale News review observed. “We are at our best,’ it said, “when we are smart enough not to rely upon it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion.”
Does empathy make us better people and the world a better place? Not necessarily, however well intentioned we might be to walk in someone else’s shoes.