The Case Against Empathy

If you want to do good in the world, Yale professor Paul Bloom has some hard questions for you. First, he’d ask you why you want to do good. “Do you want to feel good about yourself? Do you want to scratch that itch of empathy? Or do you want to make the world a better place? I’m optimistic enough to think that many of us want to make the world a better place,” he says. “And now we have to engage in a very difficult problem of exactly how to do so.”

Bloom tackles the complexities of doing good in his new book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. At first glance, the title may seem callous but Bloom makes clear that he is against a very particular kind of empathy: feeling the pain and suffering of others. He argues that this kind of empathy can cause us to make short-sighted and even biased decisions. “What empathy does, is it zooms you in on an individual,” he says. “We find ourselves in weird situations where we care a lot more about one specified person, one identifiable victim, than we care about a thousand people who are in the same situation.”

In this podcast, Bloom talks about why empathy is linked to prejudice and why the “biases and messiness of empathy” get in the way of genuine problem-solving. He says the solution is to apply principles of justice and fairness but not to “go through the exercise of trying to get in the heads of people and feeling their pain.”

Additional Resources:

Paul Bloom’s book: Against Empathy

Kirkus review

Paul Bloom in the Wall Street Journal: The Perils of Empathy

Paul Bloom in The New Yorker: The Baby in the Well: The case against empathy

NPR article: Study: What Was The Impact Of The Iconic Photo Of The Syrian Boy?

Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times: How the World Closed Its Eyes to Syria’s Horror?

Psychology Today article: Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong About Empathy and Morality

Bloom on Twitter

Featured Image: Paul Bloom (credit: Greg Martin)


  1. Milly

    I struggled to get Paul Bloom’s point here. It sounded more like a critique of sympathy than empathy to me. Empathy isn’t the absorbtion of other’s pain or suffering, therein lies the road to burnout and overwhelm. It is an absolute acceptance that the only truthful end to the sentence “if I were you…’ is “I would have done exactly as you did, because I would be you”. Deep empathy is the manifestation of an understanding that we are all one – we are all scaps of the same life force; what I do to you I do to myself; not one of us is any more or any less important than any other scrap of life. That expression of empathy doesn’t pan out to what Mr Bloom observes as bias towards those who are superficaially ‘like us’ (colour, class, gender etc) because there is a recognition that everyone and eveything is, at core, ‘like us’.
    Equally, the idea of doing ‘good’ in the world assumes we share an understanding of what ‘good’ means. I listened to another podcast earlier about a white supremacist who had come to change his views on white supremacy. Prior to that shift in thinking he and his family genuinely believed that their movement to keep all races separate was doing a ‘good’ thing for the world. Who is the arbiter of right and wrong, good and bad?
    Mr Bloom’s example of Sandy Hook and the children of Chicago might be a reflection of what our media chooses to draw our attention to rather than an error of empathy on the part of anyone who contributed by sending gifts or money to the former. I doubt that the deaths of schoolchildren in Chicago had the same level of media and news coverage as Sandy Hook. How can people be blamed for not empathising with somehing they probably knew nothing about?

  2. Meg Stout

    Paul sounds like (and looks a bit like) Harold Bloom. Fun!

    I agree that allowing “empathy” to prevail over clear-eyed wisdom and appropriate compassion is dangerous.

    It is unwise to allow emotion to drive preferential gifts/policy for those one naturally prefers over the choice analysis confirms would be best.

    I’m an engineer and historian, and I see innumerable instances where the soft appeal makes people do stupid things that damage long-term interests.

    There is an old parable about a parched individual finding a well, with a glass of water that is to be used to prime the pump. The empathy Bloom decries would cause people to argue that thirst must be quenched first and foremost, rather than acknowledging that a few moments of self-denial will lead to an endless supply of bounty.

    Thanks to Paul Bloom for adding to this important societal conversation.

  3. “Which case (for or against empathy) is right?” This is the wrong question, since it carries an implication that everyone is (or should be) the same. What makes for a civil society is acceptance that all are different, and that there will be a mix of attitudes, including a mix of diverse rational and ideological values. My thoughts stem from a long career in managing systems, particularly seeing (and managing) what I call complexity or hyper-complexity; dysfunction or change occur most often at the interfaces where the “systems” and people (partially autonomous agents) meet. In any complex system the people involved will have different agendas. That can be a cause of destruction or progress, depending how it is managed. (As my health restores, and depending on others; interests, I am planning to do some writing on this field of management).

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