WHAT I’VE BEEN READING: Against Empathy by Paul Bloom

I’ve been reading and writing a lot about empathy recently, as part of my Working With Emotions in Conflict course, and more broadly. This book caught my attention and was fascinating reading. I do love an author who challenges some of the things we take for granted, and Bloom certainly does this.

The book is a lengthy critique of emotional empathy: the type of empathy when we feel what another person is feeling (as opposed to cognitive empathy, which is when we understand how another person is feeling).

Bloom argues that empathy is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He says that it’s a poor moral guide, and not the same thing as not the same thing as being compassionate, kind, or good.

He explains that empathy can be used by successful psychopaths for cruelty and exploitation. Even assuming that a capacity for empathy is a good think, Bloom points out that there’s a difference between capacity for empathy, and one’s willingness to use it.

Even used by well-intentioned people, he demonstrates that empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now. This makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with. He argues that empathy has a narrow focus and reflects our biases. Empathy is sensitive to whether someone is a friend or foe, part of one’s group or an opposing group, pleasing to look at or disgusting, and much else. Whether or not we are consciously aware of it, empathy is modified by our beliefs, expectations, motivations, and judgments. He also suggests that empathy is sort sighted, favours one over many, can spark violence, is corrosive in personal relationships, exhausts the spirit, and can diminish the force of kindness and love.

This book will make you think, and you will not think about empathy in the same way ever again.

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