The Problem with Paul Bloom on Empathy

Paul Bloom, eminent psychologist at Yale, is at work on a new book explaining the problem with empathy. I have little to go on in reference to the content of the book (since it’s not out yet) aside from this short video:

This is less to go on than is preferable, but enough, I think, to get the point of his argument. My problem with his argument is twofold. First, Bloom presumes the superiority of utilitarianism. Second, I contend empathy is only one a few reasons a person might object to utilitarianism, and maybe not even the most compelling one. Further, the reason why empathy often chafes with utilitarian thinking is important.

Before I explain further,  it’s important to recognize Bloom’s initial point in the video, that empathy can blind us to the long-term consequences of our actions. I don’t think the connection between empathy and short-sidedness is at all obvious. I would agree that empathy can cause a person to be short-sided, but not that it necessarily does. Therefore, there may be good reason to think empathy ought not be the sole motivation for our actions. Yet, from where I sit, it seems preferable for no single impulse or motivation to guide our acting. This is to say, the initial point Bloom makes isn’t really an argument against empathy at all.

Now on to my more direct disagreement. Bloom seems to disparage empathy because it can prevent us from doing the best thing for the largest number of people. This may in fact be true, and this claim has some intuitive resonance. However, the point presumes that utilitarianism is the preferable ethical perspective. Bloom may present a robust and convincing argument for this in the book, but without doing so I find no reason to agree to such a presumption. In fact, I can think of many reasons to think otherwise.

While it certainly can interrupt the crass utilitarian calculus, empathy is not the most important reason I would reject utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is unfavorable because it fails to account for anything distinct about individuals and it conflates all value to a single currency. That is, utilitarianism neither acknowledges distinct individual worth or dignity nor that some values are not equivalent to or exchangeable with others.

All this to say, the hard work for Bloom is not to critique empathy as a single moral motivation (low hanging fruit) but to build a strong case for utilitarianism – a project about which I remain rather skeptical.


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