Global Ethics Forum: Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion with Paul Bloom


(gentle electronic music) – Our speaker is Paul Bloom, the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale and he will be discussing his recently published
book entitled Against Empathy: The Case
for Rational Compassion. And it has been
causing quite a stir. – I started to argue
against empathy about three years
ago in an article I published in The New Yorker. It was the first thing I
ever published on this, so I was very eager to see what
people would think about it. Once it was posted online, I immediately went
on social media to get a sense of the response. The very first thing I saw, the very first thing
was a tweet on Twitter. It had the URL to my
article and it said, “Probably the dumbest thing
I have ever read ever.” (attendees chuckle) Since then, I’ve received
similar responses and critiques. One blogger at Harvard
described me as “a moral monster and an
intellectual disgrace.” I’ve come to realize that my message is not
entirely welcome. To some extent,
being against empathy sounds a lot like
being against kittens. It’s not really a sort of view one could seriously hold. I think part of
the problem here, not the whole problem, but part of the problem, is that people mean
different things by empathy. Some people use the
term as a catch-all term for everything good, for
compassion, love, morality, wanting to make the world
a better place, and so on. I’m certainly not
against it in that sense. In fact, it’s because I’m
for all of those things that I’m against empathy. Others use it in
a narrower sense to describe what people think and the understanding of
what people think and feel, sometimes known as
cognitive empathy. And I’m not against that either, though I think it’s
not a force for good or a force for bad. It’s amoral. Cognitive empathy is a
form of intelligence, sometimes called
social intelligence, and like any sort
of intelligence, it could be used for
good or for evil. It’s true that
somebody who wants to make the world a better place would benefit
hugely from knowing how people’s minds work, but also you’d
find the same trait in successful con men, seducers,
psychopaths, and torturers. The sense of empathy
that I’m concerned about is the capacity to put yourself in the shoes of other people and feel what they feel. This is actually
the same as what the scholars of the 18th
century described as sympathy. Adam Smith, as usual,
provides the best description. He says that when we feel this, we place ourselves in
someone’s situation and become, in some measure, the same person with him, thence form some idea
of his sensations and even feel something, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. Psychologists have long
been interested in this. There’s a rich body of
neuroscience literature, for instance, that find that, what they do in
these experiments is the subject experiences
some sort of pain. They’re pricked,
they’re shocked, they got something
hot put on them, they’re blasted
with loud sounds, and we monitor their brain
activity when this happens, and then, they watch
someone else be pricked, or burnt, or
blasted, or shocked. It turns out the very
same parts of the brain light up in
correspondence to this, suggesting that the phrase, “I feel your pain,” is in
some sense literally true. We do have that mirroring. Other psychologists have found that when you feel
empathy for somebody, when you’re asked to put
yourself in their shoes, you really are kinder to them. You direct your
focus toward them and you tend to care
more about their welfare. Accordingly, a lot
of psychologists, philosophers, and
neuroscientists see empathy as critically
important for morality. Martin Hoffman at
NYU argues that it’s the developmental core from which all of
morality comes from. Frans de Waal argues that it’s the evolutionary
core of morality, not just for humans,
but you find it in non-human primates as well. His book on the topic is
called Age of Empathy. Simon Baron-Cohen, the
Cambridge psychologist, is one of the
strongest proponents of the importance of empathy, where he argues that evil is nothing more and nothing less than empathy erosion. Of course, lay people,
and politicians, and theologians jump in as well. Barack Obama has spoken
more about empathy than any president of our time. At one point he says, “Look, the biggest deficit “we suffer in our country “and in the world has
nothing to do with money. “It’s an empathy deficit.” So how could somebody
be against this? The first thing to realize is no matter what kind of
empathy fan you are, you gotta acknowledge
it’s not essential to moral judgment. There’s all sorts of things
we appreciate are wrong, even if we can’t find
anybody to empathize with, any identifiable victim. Throwing trash out
of your car window or cheating on your taxes or contributing
to climate change, you can’t point to
somebody and say, “Well, that person
is going to suffer,” but still you might view
these as morally wrong. Then there’s cases
where empathy can clash with other moral values. A wonderful example is by the
empathy scholar Dan Batson. He tells a story of this girl, an eight-year-old girl
named Sheri Summers. Sheri Summers is going to die. There’s nothing you
can do about that. But there’s a treatment
you could give her that will alleviate her
suffering, alleviate her pain. The problem is she’s low
on the line for treatment. She’ll die before she can get it because others kids
have been waiting longer and are even more
desperate need. So you ask people, “Would you move her up the line? “You’re a hospital
administrator. “You just move her
to the top line, “knowing that if you do so, “some other kid is gonna
go off the line-up.” Most people say, “No.” They say: “It’s too bad,
but if it’s a fair list, “we should leave
things as they are.” Another group of people get exactly the same story
but are told something. They’re asked, “Put
yourself in her shoes. “Feel her pain.” Now, all of a sudden,
responses shift, and people want to move her up. Batson points out
that this is a case where empathy leads us astray; it overrides other
moral motivations that we should be
keeping in mind. My critique is stronger. I think empathy really
is like a spotlight. It zooms you in on people, and when it zooms
you in on people, you’re more likely to help them. I agree with that. But like a spotlight, we could point it
in the wrong places, so it’s subject to
bias and myopia, and like a spotlight, it’s
insensitive to numbers. It’s innumerate and
ultimately irrational. One way to make this case, to kind of start off,
is to think about the real-world cases
that have captured the imaginations of Americans, our interest, our
focus, our concern. Some of us are old enough to remember all these girls that got stuck in wells. Girls would often
get stuck in wells, and then the whole community
would get together, and it’d be on the front
page of Time magazine as we’d try to get
them out of the well. Some of us will remember
Natalee Holloway an attractive white girl who
goes on vacation in Aruba and gets abducted and murdered. Most recently, and
most affecting me, given where I live,
there was the mass murder in Sandy Hook Elementary
School in Newtown, Connecticut. I don’t want to make light
of any of these incidents; they’re all extremely important, involving real death and
real pain and suffering. But I’m not the first to notice that there’s something strange in the focus we give to them. The psychologist
Paul Slovic noticed that when Natalee
Holloway went missing, there was 18 times
more network coverage devoted to her than on the
ongoing crisis in Darfur, which took the lives
of tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of
thousands, of people. Mass shootings like Sandy Hook are undeniably tragedies. We tend to think of mass
shootings as a huge problem. It turns out that mass
shootings account for about 0.1 percent
of U.S. homicides. What this means is that if
you could snap your fingers and make it so that
there would never be a mass shooting
in America again, nobody would ever notice because it would be
indistinguishable from statistical noise. But it doesn’t feel that way. We see it in the lab as well. There are numerous
experiments showing that you care more about one person than eight people if your attention is drawn to the person as an individual. The same neuroscience
studies that show empathic resonance in the brain show that empathy
is extremely biased. Somebody like me
is going to feel more empathy for the suffering of a white person
than a black person, than a man than a woman. All of us feel more
empathy for those people who are attractive than
for people who are ugly. For those people who disgust us, we feel no empathy at all. Now, I want to deal
with the objections. An immediate
objection is, “Fine. “Empathy can be innumerate, “it could be biased,
it’s imperfect, “but it’s better than nothing;
it doesn’t do any harm.” But it can do harm, and it’s not hard to
think of examples. I’ll start with a
hypothetical example. Suppose there’s a vaccine
program in New York, and a little girl gets
extremely sick and dies. Most likely, the vaccine
program will be shut down. It will be shut
down even if it were to turn out that this
program was actually saving the lives of many kids because you could feel
tremendous empathy for the family of
the girl who suffers, for the girl herself, but you can’t feel empathy
for the statistical fact that people would
have died but didn’t. Take a real world case of this. Some of you may have heard
the name Willy Horton. When Mike Dukakis was
governor of Massachusetts, he had a furlough program. In the course of the
furlough program, a man named Willy Horton, an African-American
man, was released and he went on to
assault somebody and rape somebody else. This program was seen as
an embarrassing failure and was immediately shut down and Dukakis apologized for it, and this came up in the
election against George Bush, which Dukakis lost. It was seen as a
humiliating failure. It turns out that
analyses, even at the time, suggested that the furlough
program was working, that is, because of the program,
there were fewer assaults, fewer murders, fewer rapes. But our emotions are insensitive
to that sort of data. It is easy to feel
tremendous empathy for someone who is
assaulted or raped, but you can’t feel
empathy for some statistical
abstraction of people who would have been
raped but weren’t. Then we think about
issues like foreign aid, which I know many people
here are engaged with. As people know, there’s
a lot of controversy over the extent to which
foreign aid is actually helping and the extent to
which it’s hurting and a lot of criticisms
about the way empathic appeals are
used to direct funding. There’s all sorts of
examples about this. One example raised
by Linda Polman concerns warlords in
Sierra Leone where, when asked, “Why do you chop
off the limbs of children?” basically answered,
“We do it for you.” They pointed out that
they get a lot of support from NGOs and
government agencies who come to their country; they take taxes
from these people. But nobody comes unless
they give them an atrocity. Our empathy for the children is cynically exploited by
evil actors in the world, and there are many cases
in which this happens. Empathy can be a
catalyst for violence, and this was again
pointed out by Adam Smith, who notes that when you
think about atrocities, we often think in terms of hatred and dehumanization,
it’s all true. But one engine for atrocity is the empathy we
feel for victims. This is not ancient history. Through the invasions of Iraq the more recent
bombing of Syria, whenever politicians
in a democratic society want to incite anger and
hatred against a group and want to motivate
a group to war, they tells stories
about victims, sometimes true,
sometimes not true, and our feelings
for the victims. I remember, for instance, the horrific stories of Saddam Hussein’s monster sons and the atrocities they
committed energized us, and our empathy
then energizes us to want to strike out. We see this in the very
current political climate, which is, a lot of
anti-immigrant rhetoric isn’t just broad
statistical claims. It’s not hatred, per se,
directed against immigrants. Rather, and you see
this, for instance, in the work of Ann Coulter, whose book Adios, America was the motivation for
Donald Trump’s policies, they tell stories about
the suffering of people. Her book is all about rape. It’s about rape and child rape. And it makes you feel
tremendously bad for the victims and then tremendously
angry towards the people who caused their
suffering, in her view, Mexicans and Muslims,
and other immigrants. Empathy can be weaponized,
and it often is. The second objection
is, somebody could say, “Well, maybe you’re right
about public policy issues. “But isn’t empathy critical “for certain relationships? “And maybe particularly
relationships “between doctors and patients, “nurses, therapists, and so on?” I think, again, it depends
what you mean by empathy. A lot of places, including
Yale Medical School, I work at Yale, have what’s called
empathy training. I have nothing against
empathy training because when you look at it, empathy training
is basically to get doctors to listen
to their patients and treat them with
respect and everything. But empathy, in the sense I’m
concerned about, real empathy, is nothing but a minus. For doctors to really feel the suffering of their
patients leads to burnout. The best medical professionals
understand their patients, care about their patients, but
they don’t feel their pain. It’s not good for
the patient, either. If you could forgive
me an anecdote, my uncle was ill last
year with cancer. We were in Boston. I went with him to
see different doctors. The sort of doctors he
got along well with, he liked, were ones not
who felt his anxiety, not who mirrored his
anxiety, his worry, and his stress, but were
respectful and confident and clear and honest,
somebody who didn’t echo his suffering but
rather responded to it. Certainly, this is the
case for therapists. Therapists have to
understand their clients, and they have to feel
compassion for them. They have to know what
they’re going through. But anybody who
thinks therapists should actually feel
their clients’ pain doesn’t understand therapy, in that if I go to my shrink
and I’m really, really anxious, “This book will never sell,”
(audience chuckles) I don’t want her to get anxious. I don’t want to her to go, “Oh my god, we’re
in big trouble.” (audience laughs) Then I have two
problems, not one. What I want is for her
to look at me and say, “So how does that
make you feel?” (audience laughs) and basically have
the sort of distance that’s part of any good
therapist’s training. You don’t want to mirror people; you want to respond to them with love, compassion,
and caring. A third concern about
an anti-empathy stance is that people without
empathy are monsters, they’re psychopaths. It’s true that psychopaths, you can do a psychopath test, you could all do it online, one of the features
is low empathy. But it’s also true that of all
the features of psychopathy, low empathy has zero
predictive power when it comes to predicting
bad behavior towards people. What really matters
in predicting whether a psychopath
is going to reoffend is issues like aggression
and lack of self-control. The same is true for you. There’s now been
dozens, maybe hundreds, of studies looking at
the connection between low empathy, because some of
you have very low empathy, and aggression,
sexual aggression, verbal aggression, and
physical aggression. And the punchline is, there is no connection at all. Again, if I wanted to figure out which one of you is likely to jump me on the way out of here and take my wallet and my notes, giving you all an empathy test will tell me nothing. The test I would give you, I’d ask you two
questions, actually, to figure out which one of
you is likely to harm me. The first one is
kind of obvious, “Have you ever harmed
anybody in the past? “Have you ever
committed a crime? “Have you ever committed
a violent crime? “Have you ever
beaten up a speaker “leaving the Carnegie Council?” (audience laughs) Then the second question is, “How’s your self-control?” Because basically, a
lot of the violent crime isn’t due to a lack of empathy; it’s due to inability
to control our impulses and our appetites. The final objection is that, okay, empathy may have
all of its problems. It may cause harm in the world. But without empathy,
we’d be terrible people. You need some sort
of kick in the pants to get you to do
good in this world. And I agree with that totally. The point is as old as the
philosopher David Hume, who pointed out,
“It’s not enough “to rationally figure out
the right thing to do. “You also have to have
some sort of motivation, “some emotional push,
to get you to do it.” But what I want to suggest is there are
alternatives to empathy. Our moral psychologies
are very rich. We’ve all sorts of
moral motivations. There’s guilt, there’s shame, there’s concerns
about our reputation, there’s an honest desire
for it to be a better world. I’m most interested
in the distinction between empathy and compassion, and I don’t want to get
too caught up in the words. People use the words
in different ways. These are just the
ways I’m calling them. You could call them
something else, but the distinction
is very important. I actually got connected
to this distinction when I was at a
conference in London. I’m at the registration
booth at the hotel, and I see this guy, this
monk, in saffron robes. He’s Matthieu Ricard, who is a very famous meditator. He’s so-called the
happiest man alive, that’s what it says
in Time magazine, which means if
you put him and me together in a room, you’d
average out one normal man. (audience laughs) I go up to him in my
normal smooth way. I say, “You’re Matthieu Ricard,
the happiest man alive.” Because he’s a monk, he
was very polite to me, and we go for tea. He asked me what I’m up to, and I tell him the truth. I say, “I’m writing a
book against empathy.” I felt very awkward doing this, like I’m telling a rabbi, “I’m writing a book
against Shabbos.” But his response surprised me. His response was, “Oh,
empathy’s terrible. “Of course, you should
be against empathy. “Too obvious to write about.” It turned out that, and I hadn’t known about this, he had been engaged in the very famous research program with the neuroscientist
Tania Singer, it was just starting; it’s been developing like
crazy over the last few years, which carefully
distinguishes empathy, which is feeling
other people’s pain, being motivated by the
experience of their suffering, from compassion or
loving kindness, where you care for people, but you don’t feel their
pain, you don’t suffer. They did experiment after
experiment after experiment. They find that when you’re
in an empathic state, it activates different
parts of your brain than when you’re in a
compassionate state. But more to the point, they find that compassion
invigorates you. It leads to more helping. Empathy exhausts. Compassion charges you up. It makes people better helpers, more efficient helpers,
kinder helpers. More recently, there’s
been work by David DeSteno and his colleagues at
Northwestern University on mindfulness meditation. There’s all sorts of claims about mindfulness meditation, its health benefits, and so on. I think we should be
cautious about them, but they have a finding which has been
replicated several times, which is that it
makes you nicer. It makes you kinder
to strangers. Nobody knows why. The theory that
they advance is that mindfulness meditation
makes you kinder because it shuts down the empathic centers
of your brain. If I’m in a mindfulness
state and you’re suffering, I don’t feel your pain as much, which liberates me to be
kind and loving to you without aversive feelings. Sometimes people get the idea that I’m against empathy. Nothing could be
further from the truth. I’m a big fan of empathy. Empathy is a wonderful
source of pleasure. The empathy with people who are having a great
time can be terrific. I think it is an
essential part of sports and an essential part of sex. I think one of the
joys in having children is being able to
take an experience you’ve had a hundred
times before, like fireworks, or
a hot fudge sundae, or a Hitchcock movie, and experience
them all over again for the first time through
the eyes of another person. I think empathy is at the core of the pleasure of fiction, of TV programs, of
plays, of movies, where an empathic
connection with characters, even bad characters
like the Tony Sopranos and the Walter
Whites of the world, give us this immense pleasure. My problem with empathy
is as a moral guide. I hate terminological arguments. I don’t care what you call it. But my argument is that feeling the suffering
of other people, experiencing their pain, many people view this
as the core of morality. I think this is mistaken. I think it makes
us worse people, that empathy is
morally corrosive, and we’re better off without it. So I want to
encourage all of you to join me in the
crusade against empathy. (audience laughs) Thank you.
(audience claps) – I couldn’t help, while
listening to your talk, but think maybe that explains what happened on November 8, because so many of the
quote, liberal elites have enormous amounts
of rational compassion, but it was Donald
Trump who empathized with all those people
in the Rust Belt who lost their jobs. – Yeah, you’re raising
a lot of issues. (audience laughs) By law, in any discussion
of longer than 40 minutes, Donald Trump’s name
has to be mentioned. (audience laughs) Donald Trump and empathy are not words that
naturally go together, but I think you are right. I think Donald Trump was, forget about how much empathy the man himself has
as a character trait; that’s a separate question. He is, a) very good at stoking people’s empathy
for political gain. I mentioned he talked about the crimes committed
by immigrants, but also basically if you
listen to one of his rallies, he will get you to feel
strongly for people who have been lost and
abandoned by American elites. People in the Rust
Belt, for instance. He’s done well at that. He does seem to
do a very good job of exactly what you’re saying, of conveying empathy for
the people in his audience. They feel, you hear
this in interviews, they feel like he
really knows them. It is sort of strange
because, of course, his life situation is
as different from them as you can imagine. But more than Hillary Clinton, I think he’s seen by his
supporters as empathic. My argument here was about empathy as a moral tool. When it comes to you and I doing the right
thing in our lives, should we rely on empathy? And I argued no. But if it was a
talk on how to be a successful politician, the answer would be different, and empathy as a tool like stoking up
anger and resentment, that’s a powerful tool. I agree with you. – I’ve been interested
and concerned in the decline in
childhood immunization. I wonder to what
extent is this just the inability of people to process scientific information, or to what extent
does misplaced empathy for people with autistic
children contribute to that? – It’s a gray case
because I think there are many
things going on here, including, among other things,
a sort of social signaling where vaccination has
turned out to be almost a sort of a political
shibboleth for who you’re supporting
for president, what your social views are. But I also think
empathy plays a role. I think my hypothetical
example speaks to that, which is, a child who is harmed through vaccination is an
extremely salient event, and there’s an enormous
amount to empathize with. This child came into
the doctor’s office fine and now is severely autistic. It’s a horror story that
you could resonate with. The benefits of vaccination are, in some way,
emphatically invisible. There are terrible
things that didn’t happen and we don’t process
them to the same extent. Benjamin Franklin
actually wrote about this with regard to vaccination, where he talked about
psychologically, about, “How would it feel if
you gave your child a vaccine, “and your child was to
grow to be incredibly sick? “How would you feel?” Compared to not giving a vaccine and your child becomes sick, it’s not quite the same. You didn’t make your child sick. There’s different
things going on here. But I think your case
is a perfect example of how our emotions lead us awry as well as how
cynical politicians and demagogues exploit
them to lead us awry. (audience clapping) – Thank you, that was great. – Thank you very
much for having me. (upbeat electronic music) – [Announcer] For
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Studio productions, visit carnegiecouncil.org. There you can find
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