Recall how Ptolemy used epicycles to accurately predict the movements of objects in the sky, yet he had no clue about the actual nature of those movements. We’re still in the Ptolemaic phase of social science.
Paul Bloom had an article come out in the WSJ today, The Perils of Empathy. It’s on the limitations and problems of empathy, a topic he has been writing about for years (it’s not even his first WSJ article about it).
The above quote is from the comments section, a response posted by Anthony Cusano, and it captures my own basic thought. As others noted, Bloom’s understanding of empathy is limited and so it’s unsurprising he comes to the conclusion that is limited. So, the problem is Bloom’s own confusion, based on narrow research and simplistic analysis.
There isn’t much point in analyzing the article itself. But I realize that such articles have immense influence given the platform. I’m always surprised that someone like Bloom, a respected ivy league academic and professor, would have such a superficial grasp. I’d like to think that Bloom realizes it’s more complex and that he is using rhetoric to make a point, not that this generous interpretation makes it any better.
Even though I love social science, this demonstrates a constant danger of trying to make sense of the research produced. Evidence is only as good as the frame used to interpet it.
Bloom is mixing up the rhetoric, perception, and experience of empathy. He treats empathy as something rather simple, maybe confusing it with mere sympathy. And he does this by ignoring most of what empathy consists of, such as cognitive empathy. Along with many of his allies and critics, he never puts it into its largest context. Human civilization would never exist without human empathy. This is because humanity is inseparable from empathy, as we are inherently a social species and there is no sociality without empathy.
There isn’t any grand significance in my writing specifically about Bloom’s article. The main thing wasn’t what was in it but what was left out of it.
The last thing I wrote earlier in the week was about the hive mind in terms of entrainment. There would be no human families, groups, social identities, communities, nations, etc without empathy. None of this is solely or even primarily dependent on empathy as direct emotionality and personal sympathy. An army marching has a shared identity that doesn’t require any given soldier to empathize with any other individual soldier, much less every single soldier. The empathy is with a sense of group identity that transcends all individuality. The soldiers in marching form grok this collective identity as a muscular bonding that, in the moment, is as real as their own bodies.
Empathy is the foundation and essence of everything that is human. It precedes and encompasses every other aspect of our humanity, including rational compassion. Posing empathy as a choice is irrelevant. There is no choice. Empathy just is, whether or not we use it well. We can’t objectively study empathy because we can’t separate ourselves from it. There is no outside perspective.
Let me conclude with some words of wisdom, “We are Groot.”
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I Could Say that Paul Bloom is a Callous Idiot, But I Empathize With Him…
by Nathan J. Robinson, The Navel Observatory
Thinkfluence Man Pretends To Think Empathy Is Bad
by Albert Burneko, The Concourse
Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong About Empathy and Morality
by Denise Cummins, Psychology Today
The one thing that could save the world: Why we need empathy now more than ever
by Roman Krznaric, Salon
Welcome to the empathy wars
by Roman Krznaric, Transformation
Can You Run Out of Empathy?
by C. Daryl Cameron, Berkeley
Understanding is Inherent to Empathy: On Paul Boom and Empathy
by Jeremiah Stanghini, blog
What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and (Empathic) Understanding
by John Payne, EPIC