Empathy + Thinking = Wise Action
In a recent video from The Atlantic, Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom argues that empathy is a fundamentally bad thing that makes the world worse.
Bloom believes empathy leads us to make less rational decisions. If a child is trapped in a dangerous mine, our empathy compels us to harness great sums of money and effort to save her. A more effective way to spend limited resources, however, might be to provide life-saving water to thousands of children in a drought-stricken area.
I understand Bloom’s perspective.
My own experiences of responding emotionally, rather than rationally, to suffering support Bloom’s argument. For example, I’ve given money to save a single child, a single family, and a single pig, chimp, and dog more times than I can count, even when I knew that my money would be better spent on systemic change.
Despite this, I don’t wish that I had less empathy. Empathy has motivated me to want to alleviate suffering in the first place and to commit my life to creating a more just and humane world.
My challenge is to ensure that the actions that empathy inspires are wise ones. This is why I’ve thoughtfully and intentionally focused the great majority of my charitable dollars, as well as my work, on changing unjust, unsustainable, and inhumane systems, rather than on band-aid solutions or helping individuals. So while I agree that dollars and time devoted to individuals can and should be more wisely allocated much of the time, I don’t think we should reject the empathy that compels us to help our neighbor in favor of Bloom’s “cold-blooded” analysis.
Effective altruism—an approach to improving the world utilizing reason and evidence that Bloom mentions positively in his video—doesn’t require that we forgo empathy. My guess is that those who lack empathy are far less likely to want to be effective altruists than those who are deeply compassionate. Without empathy as a default setting, the world would be a scary place, with little effective altruism. After all, one of the hallmarks of sociopaths and psychopaths is their lack of empathy.
Bloom goes even further, arguing that empathy leads to war. It is surprising that Bloom posits that invading Middle Eastern countries stems from our empathy for victims of brutality and cruelty. We certainly do go to war for many emotional reasons—fear, vengeance, greed, and rage among them. I do not think, however, that we may go to war in Syria against ISIS because of an overabundance of empathy, as Bloom suggests. (Surely we would be opening our borders to Syrian refugees were we full of empathy.)
Whether the challenges we face revolve around conflict, environmental destruction, human oppression, or animal cruelty, Bloom is right that empathy doesn’t by itself lead to wise action, which is why empathy alone is insufficient for solving pervasive, entrenched, and systemic problems. Critical, strategic, creative, and systems thinking are essential capacities that enable us to put the motivation for good that our empathy inspires into successful actions.
Yet it’s much easier to teach someone who is brimming with empathy to be a good critical, creative, strategic problem-solver than to teach someone apathetic about poverty, slavery, oppression, and prejudice how to cultivate better thinking for a more just future. At least that’s been my experience over the past thirty years as a humane educator.
This is why it’s important that schools actively cultivate empathy alongside thinking capacities and dispositions such as being conscientious, ethical, responsible, and solutions-oriented. I see this as a both/and not an either/or.
By creating a false dichotomy Bloom moves us away from the best and wisest solutions to serious challenges. Were we to adopt his perspective, we might begin to systemically reject empathy, abandoning the cultivation of an emotion that provides perhaps the greatest impetus for good.
Why would we want to do that when we can both foster empathy and teach essential thinking and problem-solving skills so that we’re educating young people to be caring solutionaries for a better world?