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, empathy is one a few reasons a person might object to utilitarianism, and maybe not even the most compelling one. In fact, the reason why empathy does so is important. These both need explaining.

Before I do so it’s important to recognize his 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. He seems to be suggesting that empathy can cause a person to act impulsively and without thinking through consequences. I would agree that empathy can cause a person to do so, not that it necessarily does, but this merely suggests that empathy ought not be the sole driver of our actions. From where I sit, no one impulse or source of ethical consideration should ever guide our acting. That is, the initial point Bloom makes isn’t really an argument against empathy at all.

Now on to my more direct disagreement. Firstly, 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. He may present a convincing argument to this end in the book, but until he makes a convincing one there is no reason to think so. In fact, there are many reasons to think otherwise.

Secondly, empathy isn’t the only good reason to reject utilitarianism. While it certainly can interrupt the cold utilitarian calculus, I’d argue that doing so is a good thing – again, because I’m not convinced utilitarianism is the ideal ethical framework. Utilitarianism is unfavorable, I contend, because it only considers the individual as a part of a majority or whole. That is, it doesn’t acknowledge that the individual has any distinct worth or dignity apart from a group. This is why utilitarianism is often at odds with a framework of individual rights. For a true utilitarian, any individual is expendable for the sake of the majority. Affirming an individual’s distinct value upsets this thinking, and empathy can play a key role in doing so.


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