Sharing in other people's woe might seem the right thing to do, but it can lead us to make bad decisionsby David Edmonds / February 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom (Bodley Head, £18.99)
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The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society by Peter Bazalgette (John Murray, £16.99)
“Being against empathy is like being against kittens,” writes the psychologist Paul Bloom. Let’s at least agree that nobody can object to kittens. Even the new Twitter-obsessed occupant of the White House—a man who demonstrated his empathetic skills during his election campaign by publicly mocking a disabled reporter—briefly followed a Twitter account devoted to photos of cute felines.
The trepidation many Americans feel about the future (especially women, African-Americans, immigrants and Mexicans) makes the arrival of two new books about empathy especially timely. Superficially, the books share much in common. They’re chatty, pacy and readable. They cover similar territory; they even draw on the same quotations, including this from US President Barack Obama: “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit”; and, from a radically different perspective, Joseph Stalin’s famous line: “When one man dies it’s a tragedy, but when a million die it’s a statistic.”
Yet the books come to very different conclusions. Bazalgette takes the more common role of kitten-enthusiast, while Bloom adopts the more original and provocative stance of kitten-slayer. The latter’s book is a sustained polemic against empathy.