I love it when I hear an idea that feels original to me, that goes against some of my own previously held beliefs, or confirms thoughts which percolated in my mind but strained articulation. That’s how I felt after listening to Paul Bloom speak to Indre Viskontas about his team at Yale’s research into human morality. According to Bloom, in order to help people in need, we need to leave empathy at the door and bring compassion instead.
I’m against [empathy]. I’m arguing that empathy is a poor moral guide. [I know this is] like saying you hate kittens or you’re in favour of Ann Coulter. It just sounds really weird. But, I would make a distinction between empathy and compassion, where empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and feeling their pain. I think empathy can do good in the short term, but it tends to distort things. It’s racist and parochial. It’s a lot easier to feel empathy for someone who looks like me or is adorable, than someone who scares me and lives far away and doesn’t look like me. Empathy is innumerate. It tends to focus us on the plight of individuals and not groups. It’s because of empathy that our society cares more about a little girl stuck in a well than on global warming, because I empathize with the girl and her family. Global warming’s some abstract thing. Ya, it might kill billions of people, but show me one. And, if you can’t, empathy has no moral pull.
Compassion [on the other hand] is valuing people, it’s valuing human life, in a distant sort of way. In every possible way, I think compassion trumps empathy, even at the local level. It’s not just contemporary doctors, but it’s actually Buddhist theologians that have long pointed out that feeling empathy for suffering people will exhaust you, and will burn you out, and make you useless. While a more distanced compassion, where you value them and you care about them, but you don’t feel their pain, is actually better to be a good person. So I’m a big champion of compassion and I’m very down on empathy.
I’m still intellectually navigating what Bloom is trying to tell us, and even whether or not I agree with him, but his assertions sure have me thinking about the work we do in education around social justice and equity. The idea that empathy breaks down because it puts us in an ironically egocentric stance where we place value on people based on the extent to which we relate to them is a provocative warning to me.
If you have time, I highly recommend listening to the entire interview in order to grapple with Bloom’s ideas in context. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with Bloom – is compassion preferable to empathy to foster equity?