Bloom on Empathy

As you might have seen this week, there's an interesting discussion of empathy by Paul Bloom in the New Yorker. The point he makes is that despite the generally good press empathy gets these days, enthusiasm for it has been misplaced because "empathy betrays us when we take it as a moral guide." Just to be clear on the definition, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, and as he notes in the article, the word comes from the German einfühlung, meaning "feeling into." The problem with empathy, says Bloom, is that it can lead us astray. Without the help of reason or other human faculties, empathy may lead us in the wrong direction because it is "parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate;" we may feel motivated to act only when focusing on a single individual close to us to the detriment of others similarly situated.

Perhaps Bloom's point  - that we can't act on empathy alone - is an obvious one. I still think it's an important point to make. "Moral judgment entails more than putting oneself in another's shoes. . . a reasoned, even counter-empathetic analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences is a better guide to planning for the future than the gut wrench of empathy."

Of course, no one wants to deal with people who are completely devoid of empathy, just as no one wants to deal with people whose empathy and professed altruism make them self-righteous. Empathy makes us human, and it makes us "both subjects and objects of moral concern." Even so, I think criticism of unthinking empathy and altruism is timely. Our human capacity for empathy may prompt us to "feel for" certain persons and groups, but determining what is moral is a more complex and thought-intensive process. Lately, it seems that people have forgotten that morality is more than a feeling. Actual determinations of morality must be made or we'll live in a world (perhaps we already do) driven by unworkable good intentions.