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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Against Empathy

Psychologist Paul Bloom has written a book on empathy. He is against it.  He claims it has immoral consequences. He demonstrates how people acting with empathy by giving some food to a starving person or a dollar to the cripple on the street corner get a feel-good buzz. The brain gets a shot of oxytocin with an empathetic act even though that act blindsides the person from doing something that will make the world a better place for all people. He contrasts “selfish moralizing” with “effective altruism.” The former gets in the way of the latter.

His title is a provocative way to sell a book and perhaps get some paid appearances. It opposes our usual way of understanding the Greek derived “empathy” and its Latin translated “compassion.” But that’s what makes it provocative. 

My wordplay would make empathy a characteristic of the human organism interacting with its environment through symbols by which we become conscious of ourselves in relation to other selves and distinct from objects or symbolized things in the world. Empathy then becomes socially interactive consciousness from which both "selfish moralizing" and "effective altruism" are possible.

I prefer the distinction between charity focused on “doing for” and justice which is “doing with” others to create a social order in which all of us have the capacity to do for and with. Most of us would call a just world a compassionate world.

I think Bloom is in fact distinguishing acting out of emotion (fast thinking) and acting with deliberation (slow thinking--that weighs consequences). He is also distinguishing non-effective from effective action. But that's not acting for or against empathy. He could just as well had argued for effective empathy over against ineffective empathy. 

The subtitle for his Book Against Empathy is "the case for rational compassion." I'm for them both.


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