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
Against Empathy: The Case For Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom (Bodley Head, £18.99)
Buy this book on Amazon The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society by Peter Bazalgette (John Murray, £16.99)
Buy this book on Amazon
“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.
Philosophically speaking, both authors are followers of the 18th-century Scotsman David Hume, but Bloom prods us in the direction of Hume’s German contemporary, Immanuel Kant. Kant wanted to ground morality in reason. Hume insisted that reason was the slave of passion: reason alone gives no cause to act unless we are also moved by sentiment.
But what kind of sentiment? Hume deployed the term “sympathy.” The word “empathy” did not yet exist, but it’s the modern concept closest to his meaning. There are lively disputes about how best to analyse the notion of empathy. If Hume is right, though, and some version of empathy is required as the foundation for morality, then this would explain—and justify—the incredible range of books on the subject.
One recent development has been the rapidly expanding science of empathy. We hear from both authors about the pioneering work of Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti. In his laboratory in Parma, Rizzolatti spotted something remarkable. When…