Paul Bloom's case against empathy

First, the "Wisdom of Psychopaths" and now, "The Case Against Empathy." What in the name of identifying with fellow human beings is going on here?

Paul Bloom on the limits of empathy:

Rifkin and others have argued, plausibly, that moral progress involves expanding our concern from the family and the tribe to humanity as a whole. Yet it is impossible to empathize with seven billion strangers, or to feel toward someone you’ve never met the degree of concern you feel for a child, a friend, or a lover. Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.

That’s not a call for a world without empathy. A race of psychopaths might well be smart enough to invent the principles of solidarity and fairness. (Research suggests that criminal psychopaths are adept at making moral judgments.) The problem with those who are devoid of empathy is that, although they may recognize what’s right, they have no motivation to act upon it. Some spark of fellow-feeling is needed to convert intelligence into action.

Bloom notes the identification of the sources of empathy in our respective biologies, how, for example, the neurology for personal pain and empathizing with the pain of others are one in the same. Nonetheless, empathy can be "parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate." Because we can under the right circumstances have our desire manipulated, we can be fooled, our empathy misplaced.

Over time, various institutions, from the civic to the religious, have reinforced the message that we ought to care for others. They, after all, have "the same value as the lives of the people we love." Perhaps it's true as Steven Pinker's contends that we've become less violent over time, less prone to war and its consequent heartache. But it's small comfort to far too many who will live today on the most meager of resources.

If identifying with billions of others just like we would with our own family and acquaintances is impossible - and it is -  perhaps the best we can do is to put our trust in the passage of time and robust institutions of liberal order - legislative assemblies to implement policies that a majority find acceptable and a judiciary to ensure that the rights and dignity of the minority are respected. Bloom says as much, concluding that "empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future."

It's not sexy, but I think that's his point.


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