People assume empathy, like money, is something we can never have too much of. If we were just more empathetic, society would be more just and humane. Or would it?
Is empathy actually terrible for moral and political decision-making? We discussed the surprisingly persuasive evidence for this position with author Paul Bloom.
Kelly Sarabyn: Your book was very interesting. I would recommend it to anyone concerned with morality or politics. But I’m sure many people are taken aback when they first hear the title, Against Empathy. Can you give a brief overview, for those who are unfamiliar with your book, why you are against empathy?
Paul Bloom: I’m very happy to do this—because in order to understand my argument you have to pull apart different meanings of the word empathy. Some people use the term empathy to refer to being a good person, being kind, or being loving. I’m not against any of that. In fact, I am for that. The sort of empathy I am arguing against is feeling what other people feel, particularly feeling their pain. The argument I make is that although this can feel very satisfying, it actually leads to very bad moral decisions.
This is in part because empathy is very biased. We feel empathy for people who look like us, who are attractive, and who are our friends. And it is very hard to feel empathy for people who look very different from us, or who are disgusting and frightening. Empathy is also innumerate. You feel empathy for one person, but you can’t feel empathy for ten or a hundred or a thousand. And so empathy leads to some terrible moral choices, where we value one over many, and because of these biases and these limitations, empathy often leads us to bad decisions and messes up personal relationships and can be exploited by politicians and demagogues to motivate terrible acts.
KS: I wanted to explore a bit more about how you define empathy. You’re primarily focused on emotional empathy, feeling what others feel, as opposed to cognitive empathy, which is understanding what others are thinking. That was a pretty clear distinction throughout the book. But the temporal and geographic element of empathy seemed less clearly defined. You mentioned, for example, that Americans felt a lot of empathy for the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, and you also mentioned an example where we feel empathy for starving children in the third world when we are sent a photograph of a particular child. Those two examples say, to me, that we can have empathy for a faraway person, in a third world country, or a person in the past, say a child who has been killed.
But in other parts of the book, you seemed to suggest that people could not have empathy for a future person, claiming empathy is about the “here and now.” In discussing parenting, you imply if my toddler throws a tantrum in the present moment, not wanting to take their nap, I wouldn’t be able to empathize with the discomfort of a future version of my own child, who is miserable and fussy because they skipped their nap. Why would I be able to have empathy for a child in a third world country two thousand miles away, but I wouldn’t be able to have empathy for a future version of my own toddler? Could you tell us more about the temporal and geographic limitations on your understanding of empathy?
PB: You’re raising a lot of good points, and in fact another example you could give is something that came out after my book was in press, which is the picture of the drowned Syrian boy washed ashore, and clearly that’s a kid who is very faraway but the feelings invoked for him, and possibly his family, led to an uptick in donations for a very short period.
So, yes, we can be motivated to feel empathy for someone far away, especially for a child.
But typically, we just find it much easier to zoom in on the person in front of us and somebody we care about. It’s a lot easier to think about your kid and feel empathy for your kid or your friend than a stranger.
One example I give in the book is if a child dies from a vaccine, there might be a huge clamor to shut down the vaccine program, even if because of this many more children will die. Now you can try to get people to focus on these hypothetical cases when making the decision. But the problem with empathy is that it is biased much more strongly for people you know, and for people who are in front of you. Imaginary cases have some push but they are nothing like real cases.
KS: That is no doubt a problem with the way empathy is currently used and deployed. Is it a viable alternative to develop our capacity for empathy for the faraway and future people, as opposed to simply trying to get rid of or diminish our empathy for those in front of us?
PB: There are multiple limitations of empathy. One limitation is the one you just mentioned, which is that it is much easier to feel empathy for a person in front of you. But another problem is empathy has design features that make it inherently bad for moral decision making. Even if you’re a terrific empathizer and can control your empathy at will, it still won’t tell you that a hundred thousand lives are worth more than a thousand lives. It won’t tell you that statistical costs matter tremendously and you don’t need an identifiable victim or even an imagined victim to recognize that something is a terrible thing. Another example is that of the use of empathy to motivate violence and war. Demagogues will direct empathy toward a suffering person and say, “This is what that other group did.” And the more empathic you are, the angrier you will get at those who caused the suffering.
Following what you said, you could do an empathic exercise of imagining a member of that despised group and what it would be like to be killed or injured, but it’s just not how people tend to work.
KS: But maybe that is how they should work, right? Morality is a “should,” not just an “is.” It’s not just how, on average, we currently respond to things. A lot of these examples that you’re giving, I think, on reflection, most people would agree that it’s not how we ought to behave—that we ought not, for example, shut down a vaccine program because 1 person out of 100,000 had an adverse reaction. Correct?
PB: Exactly, and that’s exactly my argument, that we should make moral decisions based on reflection.
KS: But reflection without empathy versus what I’m saying would be an alternative is reflection with empathy or, more specifically, empathy and then reflection.
PB: If you start using your empathy, your immediate concerns will be drawn to people who look like you, people you care about, your toddler over my toddler. People who share your political views versus your political enemies.
KS: But can’t we use it rationally? We were just discussing the example of war. What would you think about a moral rule that stated “before we engage in a planned act of violence to another person, we should, to the degree it can be done safely, engage in an act of empathy toward the person we intend to inflict violence upon”? To me, that seems like an almost unobjectionable moral rule, but I sense it’s not a moral rule you would agree with.
PB: A lot of people are suggesting we do military responses in Aleppo, right? Suppose we empathize with the victims. How many of them are there going to be? Do you emphasize with them one at a time?
KS: If it were me, I would empathize with a victim, but I would also empathize with the Syrian people who would be living in a post-intervention state. I would identify as many relevant players as possible, empathize with each of them, and then make a reflective decision. That seems superior to just chucking empathy and making a decision from a distance.
PB: I think we’re talking about the same thing here, we’re just using a different language. I don’t think you mean that you literally imagine 5,000 Syrians soldiers, and one by one, you empathize with them, and then you imagine 15,000 children in Aleppo and one by one, empathize with them.
KS: No, but I do mean I empathize with one Aleppo child, and then project that onto the all the Aleppo children, much like when people sent donations to help all children in Aleppo after seeing the drowned boy. In a class action lawsuit, for example, a group of people belong to the class, but they would be represented by the lead plaintiff. The lead plaintiff might testify about their injury, and a judge and jury might empathize with the lead plaintiff’s injury. There might be 200 or 200,000 people in the class, but the overriding structure is not that the judge and jury would empathize with every one of those people, but that they would empathize with the lead plaintiff and then project that onto the class. They would say, “I feel empathy with the lead plaintiff and I’m going to duplicate, or extend, that to the other people in the class.” I think that would be the same in the war case. The system is set up to determine rationally if these people are similarly situated enough to extend the empathy to them.
PB: I think we’re using empathy in different ways. I don’t actually think in any interesting sense when you decide whether to go to war in Syria, you empathize with Syrian soldiers. Or, for that matter, for the children of Aleppo. What you do is you take their suffering into account. And you do calculations on it. I would hope that for legal cases, we don’t use empathy as a guide. Because no matter how much you think you could resist this, if the plaintiff is an attractive, white woman, she will illicit much more empathy than, say, a dark-skinned male. At least for a white jury, but possibly also for a black jury. Studies of empathy-based decisions show we’re oblivious to the numbers (harming a thousand people is worse than harming ten people) and we’re strongly biased.
KS: I agree, and that’s an important point that would need to be taken into account under anybody’s system.
PB: Let me ask this so I can understand what you’re saying. What work do you think empathy does that isn’t already done above and beyond compassion and rational decision making?
KS: I think it’s necessary to moral learning—and I don’t mean in children, but in adults and societies. I don’t understand how compassion alone would be capable of bringing new people into the fold of who we consider to be of equal worth. It seems like empathy is what can propel moral change. It’s hard to do this forward looking, but we could take the example of animals. Personally, I eat meat, but I imagine it is possible in forty years from now, people will look back and say, “How could you have eaten meat?”
PB: I think you’re right about that. And I’m not a vegetarian either.
KS: Honestly, I have the book Eating Animals on my table that I haven’t read because I feel like if I read it, I might have to not eat meat.
PB: I’m a committed moral vegetarian in every way except that I eat meat. I think, by the way, that’s one of the cases that our descendants will be shocked at. I think the other case is our indifference to poor people and the suffering of poverty. I think that in the future people will be astonished at our immorality.
KS: I hope that is true. I feel it’s very odd, I’ve lived in Washington Heights in Manhattan, and in West Philadelphia, and you see outlandish wealth adjacent to poverty, and I have always thought it strange that our society just thinks that it is normal.
PB: Yes, but again, I will also confess I don’t give anywhere near as much as I think I should give.
KS: I agree, it’s tough. And if society reinforces that you’re still a good person, and it’s not required, it’s very easy to do what is more pleasurable and convenient.
PB: That’s actually really nicely put. I never thought about it that way. Peter Singer argued that spending money on luxuries on ourselves is, in some indirect way, condemning people to death. You buy a nice pair of shoes, you could have saved a child. But I think you’re raising a really good point, which is that nobody sees it that way. So if you told me you just bought yourself a new pair of shoes, or a car, for Christmas, I would say, “Oh, how nice.” And I don’t think, “That’s what you’ve chosen to do instead of helping the homeless or starving children.” So, you’re right, we tend to view it as blameless.
KS: We definitely do, and I think it’s very hard to go around that. For the most part, in real life, people think Peter Singer’s perspective on this is interesting but crazy.
PB: Exactly. We’re both chuckling because it’s not like we’re admitting to being pedophiles. We’re chuckling about this because we recognize that this is acceptable. And I think you’re right, in both cases, our grandchildren will be astonished. They will view us like two people talking about how we owned slaves, and how some people view it as wrong, but we can’t bring ourselves to not own slaves.
KS: The example I was thinking of, which might be more useful because it happened so fast and recently, is homosexuality. Forty years ago, most Americans would have thought being a homosexual was wrong. Back then, if the average American was to have compassion for a homosexual person, I think what they would say is, much like what we might say now about an alcoholic, is “I hope you get over your desires.” Now, of course, we think that having compassion for gays and lesbians means recognizing the validity of their desires and fighting for equal rights. Can compassion alone, without using empathy, get us from A to B in this circumstance? What do you think propelled us forward?
PB: All sorts of things. You’re talking about Peter Singer’s expansion of the moral circle. I don’t think that compassion itself, and any sort of emotion, necessarily leads to certain acceptance of policy. Nor should it. You know I could feel immense compassion for an alcoholic, but I don’t think alcoholism is good. I think they have a problem. I think to some extent there has just been an appreciation—this is going to sound very optimistic and naïve, maybe—an appreciation that universal rights apply to people unless there is a case made against it.
KS: But I don’t think it’s just a matter of rights. The attitudes of people have changed as to whether these desires are good or bad. What is it that changed people’s attitudes?
PB: I know some older people whose minds were changed and I don’t think in any of their cases it is because they put themselves in the shoes of a man who loves and has sex with another man.
KS: You don’t think that played a crucial role in changing people’s attitudes? A lot of people argued that what happened is people—and this was an argument within the gay and lesbian community, with some saying there was an obligation to come out—as more stories were being told and heard from brothers, aunts, or neighbors, etc., that they were able to understand.
PB: I think that did play a role. There’s even some evidence that TV shows, like Will and Grace, played a role.
KS: But you don’t think that involved empathy?
PB: If I see gay people across the street, or on TV, and at first, I didn’t like them, or I feared them, but then it turns out they are really nice people. I might come to like them. Whether they’re real or imagined. That could be a catalyst for moral change. But it doesn’t require empathy. It’s a perfect example of compassion or kindness, which is a lot easier to feel for people you feel you like.
KS: Really? Even with all the novels, memoirs and TV shows? You don’t think that invokes empathy; you think it just invokes intellectual understanding?
PB: I think there is some intellectual understanding. But I think a lot of it is also compassion and caring about people. You don’t need empathy. Empathy is a very high bar. This gets to something I don’t even talk about much in my book: there is an arrogance in assuming we can even feel empathy for people in certain circumstances. A lot of people I know are very concerned about the plight of African-American teenagers and their interaction with the cops. But it strikes me as both a mistake and arrogant to think a guy like me can really know what it feels like to be walking through the streets, and stigmatized because of my skin color, and afraid of the police. I think that’s empty talk.
KS: I agree it would take a concerted effort. There are limitations. Can a man know what it’s like to go through childbirth, or can someone who hasn’t had children understand that experience?
PB: I think the answer to a lot of these questions is no. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a moral view that includes them.
KS: But then what do you mean when you say we feel empathy for the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting? Because to me that is just as dramatic, to lose a child, or if you’re trying to empathize with a six-year-old being shot—either of those experiences seems just as extreme to me as the case you are talking about with a young black male and their relationship to the police.
PB: That’s a really good question. I think you’re right that in some way, when I say we experience what other people experience, I don’t literally mean that because that way of talking assumes we got it right, and we often don’t. A simple example someone once gave me is if you see someone being stabbed, you think it is a cutting pain that they feel, but actually being stabbed feels more like electrical shock. And it’s true I can imagine what it is like to feel like my child was murdered, but I am probably not going to be anywhere near what it actually is like. My best imagination probably can’t touch the extent of grief and suffering. But I think there is a familiar feeling, while other feelings are more distant. Take another example: I have women friends of mine who get harassed over social media. And I’m on social media a lot, and I never get any of this stuff because I am a man. I don’t get rape threats. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be the victim of pervasive sexism. Or pervasive racism. My empathic skills are just not there. But they don’t have to be for me to think racism and sexism is wrong.
KS: It still seems this more distant compassion might not be enough for expanding who is brought into the fold.
PB: I’m going to make an empirical claim which I don’t have evidence for, but I will do it for the sake of illustration. People who are part of these moral revolutions, who broaden the moral circle, are not necessarily high empathy people. High empathy people are too focused on their own relationships; they are too focused on people close to them.
KS: That’s actually an issue I wanted to ask you about. You wrote that one way to figure out how empathy works is to look at the relationship between how empathic someone is and how moral they are. But that struck me as wrong. I imagine there are very few people arguing that maximizing empathy, and only empathy, is sufficient to being a moral person. I assume anyone reasonable is arguing empathy needs to be used in certain ways, complemented with other things, like rationality.
PB: Absolutely. But if somebody is going to be arguing that empathy is important to morality, along with other things, presumably they should sign up to the view that if you don’t have much empathy, you won’t be very good. If you have a lot of empathy, you’ll be very good.
KS: No, I don’t think it means if you have a lot of empathy, you’ll be very good. I assume, for example, you wouldn’t say the most rational person is the most moral person.
PB: But I would say, because I think rationality is important, the more rationality, the better. It’s like I’m saying, I don’t know, speed is important for a football player. If so, then other things being equal, the faster, the better. But I wouldn’t doubt that someone could be very fast and weigh ninety pounds, and be a lousy football player.
KS: But that’s a linear relationship, right? In football, the faster you are, the better. But you give a perfect example in your book of a woman who is so empathic that she is just immersed in the people in front of her, and we can imagine, easily bogged down by the pain of those around her.
PB: You would agree that anybody who says empathy is important for morality has to say that, other things being equal, being low empathy isn’t a good thing?
KS: I agree with you about the low empathy—but to me, this is an empirical vs. ought issue. Say someone is low empathy in the population. These are just totally made up numbers, but say the average empathy in the population is 50, and say we have someone like Hannah who is 100, and say we have Bob who is 5. But let’s say the ideal level of empathy, when we’ve written up our philosophy books, is 20, used in a certain way. Then the person who has low empathy, the 5, is actually closer to that 20 than the person who is average at 50. To me, the empathy that is low or high in these psychological studies is a reflection of a current population.
PB: But there are people, and maybe you’re one of them, and maybe you’re not, that think having empathy is important to being a good person.
KS: I would agree with that.
PB: But after that, they would also say if somebody has very low empathy, they are not going to be kind, they will be cruel. So you could agree about too much empathy, but they have to have some empathy, or they wouldn’t care about people.
PB: It turns out, it’s all wrong. I cite all the papers and summarize them. There must have been about a hundred papers, for instance, looking at whether low empathy people are more aggressive and meaner. Because so many people said that they are. And the studies found nothing.
KS: If we find a group of people and we agree they are all bad people, they’re worse people, and they have the same amount of empathy as everyone else, that’s an issue for empathy. But I would still push back that it’s not a linear relationship, or even a quantitative issue; it’s how you use the empathy. I don’t think it’s like speed, where if you have more, you’re better, and if you have less, you’re worse. Do you think it’s a linear relationship?
PB: I don’t think there is a shred of evidence that being low empathy makes you a bad person. I think of all the studies of low empathy people; I’m thinking of Buddhist meditators, like Matthieu Ricard, who have crafted their whole life to be low empathy, to be compassionate without empathy; I’m thinking of people with Asperger’s and autism syndrome. Even though they have other problems, they have other deficiencies so I’m not bringing them up as an example of someone who is fully functional. But they are not cruel; they are not mean. They are more often victims of bullying and violence than the perpetrators.
There is more recent research that didn’t make it into my book that if you train non-exceptional people, like me, in mindfulness meditation and get them to do exercises in shutting down empathic feelings, it makes you more generous and kind. I was on a radio show yesterday and I got a phone call—it was one of those phone-in shows—and he said the same thing to me I have heard so many times before. He was an EMT worker and he was conveying that he felt he was too high in empathy and he had to quit his job. It burned him out; he was less efficient. He began to dread going to see people in pain and suffering because he felt their pain and suffering. Other EMT workers who were low empathy, they’d see someone in a lot of pain and it wouldn’t resonate. They weren’t Buddhist monks, but they had compassion without empathy.
KS: But what’s the motivation for doing that—if we don’t have empathy for other humans, what is the motivation for saying, “I want to build up my compassion. I want to help all these other people”?
PB: If we do have empathy for people, the question would remain. Because if I look at you and you are in pain, and I feel your pain, if that’s my motivation, and I want to make my pain go away, there is a much easier solution: I just don’t look at you. The motivation problem exists no matter what. Do you really have a toddler, or was that hypothetical?
KS: I have a baby and a preschooler.
PB: I would assume that you feel tremendous warmth and love toward your kids on most days. Suppose you were one of those people who were low in empathy. Do you think your love and compassion for your kids would just disappear?
KS: I don’t think it would disappear. I do agree with you that there are some other forms of affection and motivation there but I think that the bond is stronger and more motivating because of the fact that I feel their pain, and feel their joy, which is deeply bonding.
PB: That’s a reasonable view, and a lot of people hold it. I actually think it’s the reverse. I think my worst moments as a parent were when I was too caught up in my kids’ pain, anger, anxiety, and sadness. Because I experienced the anxiety along with him, I wasn’t as supportive as I could be. I didn’t think in terms of long-term solutions. And my best moments as a parent, and as a husband and a friend, are when I say, “I love you and I know you’re freaking out but I won’t freak out. I’m going to make your life better because I love you. But I’m not feeling what you’re feeling. If I was feeling what you’re feeling, we’d have two problems.”
KS: I agree and I find that very interesting and compelling, but in terms of your overall relationship, and your overall bond, do you not think it would be more impoverished if you did not have those moments where you do feel their joy and do feel their pain?
PB: Yes, this is where I struggle because I think empathy does have some role in intimate relationships. It’s not true for pain. If my kids are in pain, I will feel pain because I feel bad for them. I think any empathic pain is ultimately sort of selfish. But I think you’re right for positive emotions. I think there is something really intimate and special about sharing people’s happiness, joy, and enthusiasm. I think that’s sort of an interesting special case.
KS: You don’t think that can be extrapolated to moral change on a societal level? I think as you mentioned in your book, President Obama has deployed the language of empathy very much. Recently, he said the Democrats would have won the 2016 presidential election if they had done a better job making the voters, particularly in the Rustbelt, feel that the Democrats feel their pain.
PB: Obama has talked about empathy a lot. But the irony of that is that he’s also known as “no drama Obama.” I’m a big fan, more and more each day, of his presidency, which is marked by rational decisions, thinking about the long term, and not doing easy and popular moves. I think when it comes to exploiting empathy, it’s not Obama we should be looking at. I think the candidate that’s been most adept at exploiting empathy is our next president, Donald Trump.
KS: I don’t know if he has deployed the specific language of empathy as much as Obama but I certainly agree that he has used it. Is that where our politics are? Do you think it’s a bad development that our politics have become very much about empathy and this notion that if the politician feels our pain, feels our struggles, then that is a reason to vote for them?
PB: What really worries me is when politicians pick out one individual, exactly what we are talking about at the beginning, and gets you to focus on their suffering. And then uses that to motivate policies. Some guy who is suffering because of Obamacare, or a woman who is raped by an undocumented immigrant, for example. And Trump did it over and over again. The emphasis on people suffering in his rallies was very strong. And before that there was Ann Coulter, whose book Adios America motivated Trump. And I read Adios America. I bought it, giving Ann Coulter money I wish I didn’t have to give her. But I bought it. You know what Adios America is about? It’s about the horrors of illegal immigrants, immigrants, and Muslims, and Hispanics. It’s all about rape. Rape and child rape. She tells these stories, and if you’re a normal person, these are horrific stories. And she uses your empathy for these victims—they are identifiable victims, she tells you their names, she gives you details, to get you really angry at people who are causing it.
To answer your question, I think it’s an awful development. I’d love to see a point where if a politician says, “And let me tell you about a letter I got,” then people start to boo and say “give us the numbers.” Here’s a more benign case: Trump recently rescued a company, and he rescued the company that was going to go under—the federal government is going to save the company, and save all these jobs, and with empathy, it’s great. The only problem is if you have the long view, if you’re even close to being a conservative, you think the government shouldn’t pick and choose. You think there are long term negative effects. But Trump has no discernible policies, so he’s willing to ride the politics of empathy.
KS: Trump didn’t have a political background, and there’s been an unprecedented divisiveness within the Republican Party about his candidacy so his actual beliefs are much more of a mystery. It’s interesting to look at his rise through the lens of deploying empathy to gain support.
PB: That’s right, and I will go back to Obama. Obama is a rational decision maker but he does have cognitive empathy. I have heard him describe people who are pro-guns, and to my eyes, he gets them right. I think Obama is simply better than most at explaining why people disagree with him.
KS: Is that use of empathy effective in the context?
PB: High cognitive empathy for a politician whose views I agree with is extremely positive. On the other hand, high cognitive empathy for a politician who I hate is extremely negative.
KS: You mentioned a study in your book where people tended to support and defend a policy if they were told it was from their political party, and criticize it if they were told it was from the opposing political party. This is irrational. Since you are criticizing empathy for making terrible policy, is this really a good substitute? If people are so irrational that they will argue for something that they might not even see the sense of just because it has the blue or red flag on it, then is rationality, as its being deployed by people, a good substitute for empathy, or is it just as bad as empathy?
PB: People are really irrational. People do stupid things and they have stupid beliefs. But people are also smart enough to say, like you and I right now, “Well, that’s stupid.” We’ll know it’s stupid and try to override it. I think all we have in the end is rationality. It’s a final arbiter. It’s not very good if I say my empathy is causing me to favor the white kid over the black kid, and you said, “Well, rationally, there should be no difference. Skin color doesn’t matter,” and I said, “You and your rationality! You and your reason! So 19th century. I’m a person of feelings.”
KS: A lot of people do say that.
PB: You should see some of my emails. In a New York Times op-ed, I once said that we should strive for impartiality in moral systems—something I thought was a totally banal claim—and there are people who said, “Oh, that’s so naïve.”
KS: Isn’t that the consensus in much of the academy?
PB: If you poll moral philosophers, the vast majority are moral realists. But I agree that in some segments of the humanities, they will say things like it.
KS: I think hardly anyone would live their life that way, but I do think there are a number of people in the academy who routinely invoke that position.
PB: I agree there are some. There are some people in the humanities who say there’s no truth and no morality, but in fact a lot of the people who claim to be skeptical about truth and rationality are very involved in social justice. If you ask them why they are involved in social justice, they won’t just say, “I have these gut feelings or I have this affinity or anti-affinity.” What they say is “such and such is unfair, such is unjust.”
KS: I agree. It seems like any moral system or any philosophical system has to be a balance of reason and emotion. If emotions and feelings are part of a well lived life, then can there be any moral system doesn’t have some role for emotions?
PB: You’re saying two different things. One, them being part of well lived life, absolutely. When it comes to being moral people, you need some sort of motivation. It’s Philosophy 101, that’s David Hume’s point. Knowing the right thing to do isn’t enough. You need some sort of kick in the pants. So, absolutely. On the other hand, when it comes to figuring out what the right thing to do is I actually think that our lust, our anger, our empathy, our grief, or our guilt really shouldn’t play a moral role. I’m mostly utilitarian, but even if you’re a deontologist, you appeal to principles. The right thing doesn’t depend on our gut feelings and that’s good because our gut feelings were shaped by evolution for all sorts of purposes that have nothing to do with morality. While with reason, we can, to some extent transcend it. I don’t think emotions have any more to do with morality than they do with mathematics. They might have a lot to do with why mathematicians choose to become mathematicians. But they don’t have to do with the mathematics itself.
KS: You don’t think your feelings inform your rational decisions in regard to how various experiences should be weighed? If you’re saying you’re largely a utilitarian, then I assume you have to try to assess the value of one person being in love versus another person losing their child. All these things have to be taken into account if you’re trying to decide what is best.
KS: So, over time, doesn’t your rationality need to be informed by the nature and experiences of various emotions?
PB: I’m not sure. Certainly, for any moral decision, you need to take into account people’s suffering and happiness. But I don’t think the decision process itself needs to be permeated with emotion.
KS: I agree with that. But you don’t think empathy is a good way to gather relevant moral information? Because I agree with you that you do not make a moral decision when you are enraged because someone has come to you because they were sexually assaulted. But I still wonder—and I assume you are saying at the end of the day, it is just too erroneous, just not accurate enough—if empathy is not needed to collect information about different people and different experiences. Is it just not good enough as a way of collecting moral information?
PB: That’s a nice way of putting it. It’s biased in certain ways, and I think sometimes it gets things right. There are simple cases where it gets things right. But I think it’s always dispensable, and that when we dispense with it, and rely on other things, including compassion as a motivator, we do our best to work around the biases. We’re never perfect. Show me an empathic decision maker and I will show you someone who is strongly moved by people who are pretty, and who have the right skin color, and who are close to them.
KS: Do you think compassion can overcome those biases?
PB: No, I think compassion is a bit better because it is less intimate, and less innumerate. But compassion is also biased. If you took away all the empathy from my brain, I’d still be biased. But I think when we rely on reason to make our moral decisions, we can do our best to overcome bias. And even then we’re not perfect. We often fool ourselves and think we’re doing the rational thing and the right thing, while, really, we’ve swayed things in our favor. This is why—and I agree with people like Jonathan Haidt here—we are at our best when we reason with others, often with opposing motivations.
KS: We read and discuss many novels here at Book Club Babble. What do you think about empathy and the art of telling stories?
PB: Sometimes people get the impression I am against empathy, and nothing could be further from the truth. I think there is a lot to be said about empathy from the standpoint of the artist, but I’m most interested in how empathy is such an integral part of the pleasure we get from TV, movies and novels. That we have this tremendous appetite for putting ourselves in the shoes of another person living out their lives. And the cool thing is it’s not only having pleasant experiences, which kind of makes sense, but even the lives of suffering people.
KS: Or horror movies, where we enjoy being frightened.
PB: Or horror movies, exactly. For a while, you can be Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, and to me, this is such a core pleasure in our lives. I would hate to be in a world without empathy.
KS: If you think there’s some kind of intrinsic pleasure for humans in having empathic experiences, do you think that the capacity is something that we should encourage or discourage in our children?
PB: I think it’s like a lot of things. Moving away from children, take the example of lust. Am I pro-lust or anti-lust? Well, I’m pro-lust in the right situation. I think lust is a very bad thing for a medical doctor to experience during a medical exam. I think it’s a very poor guide to policy decision. But regarding a healthy, romantic sexual life, it’s great. My feeling about empathy is that it is an incredible source of pleasure. Emotional empathy, feeling the feelings of others, is a central part of literature and art. It’s just really crap for moral decisions.
KS: So, ideally, we should teach our kids to put it in its proper place?
PB: Yes, that’s right. That’s a nice way of putting it.
KS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. His popular writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Natural History, and many other publications. You can buy his book here.