We Are Empathy

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.”

* * *

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

5 thoughts on “We Are Empathy

  1. It’s a very strange string of bad logic that Bloom ran with. I’m quite confused, actually. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a point made by an academic that was full of so many goofy points and implicit poor assumptions. I’ve enjoyed and learned from him, too.

    I like the relatively quite modest point made by the moral foundations bunch that one should think a little when feeling empathic, so that potentially “offsetting” moral values can wedge in on the scene if appropriate, and there’s some nice recent evidence that Stanley Feldman is writing up shortly from a clever study that shows that people do that.

    • This is one of those posts where I didn’t exactly have a point I was making. It was just a response to something. I don’t see what Bloom was trying to get at, other than maybe trying too hard to appear controversial. It seems to me that empathy is value neutral ability. It’s just a part of what humans are. Criticizing empathy for those who use it to bad ends or fail to use to good ends is like blaming the index finger for it fitting the trigger of a gun.

      I don’t even see empathy as a single thing, since it is as diverse as the human mind and as diverse as to which humans apply it. Empathy also shifts according to other traits. It would be different for those with thick or thin boundaries, high or low neuroticism, etc. Almost everyone has empathy — besides the rare cases of extreme psychopathology, cognitive maldevelopment, or neurological damage. But empathy expresses in many ways and degrees. This is seen along ideological lines which determines who does and doesn’t receive empathy in what ranking of value.

      Liberals have more cognitive empathy in that they have less gut-level group loyalty. Empathy can express as group conformity and close personal concern, as it tends to be seen in conservatives, but it doesn’t have to. Many liberal-minded people have for centuries been against such things as wars of aggression and slavery, even when it harms no one they personally know. To my liberal empathy, the Iraqi child who was made homeless by US bombs is as emotionally real to me as the American child who is homeless because her family’s house was lost in foreclosure. Physical distance doesn’t necessarily equate to emotional distance. In fact, the harm caused by distance as in war can make me more emotionally moved and morally concerned. I protested the Iraq War, whereas I’ve never protested housing foreclosures, even though both caused homelessness.

      Interestingly, the anti-war protest movement against the Iraq War was the largest protest movement in world history up to that point. And most people who protested weren’t Iraqis, had never been to Iraq, or had ever met an Iraqi. Yet there was a strong sense of empathy among many protesters because of those who would be harmed in an unjust and unnecessary war of aggression, including both innocent non-combatants who got in the way and the wasted lives of US soldiers who were sent there.

      You know my view on Haidt’s moral values. I see that he ignores moral values important to liberals and oversimplifies as well. But I do think he is right in some of his understandings that Bloom would be wise to take into account, such as the value of moral intuition and group identity that transcends individualistic views of empathy, although I’d be less prone to dividing this up as a conservative vs liberal issue. I’m not sure I understand the “offsetting” you mention. I’ll have to look at Stanley Feldman’s work when it comes out.

      Here is about the ideological differences of empathy:


      “They offered some other scenarios too, about collateral damage in military situations, for instance, and found similar differences: Conservatives accepted collateral damage more easily if the dead were Iraqis than if they were Americans, while liberals accepted civilian deaths more readily if the dead were Americans rather than Iraqis.”


      “We see that liberals and progressives are more sympathetic toward animals and foreigners than are conservatives and libertarians. Conversely, though not to the same extent, conservatives are more sympathetic toward soldiers and babies than are progressives and liberals. Criminals, drug addicts, and the homeless are again more “popular” among progressives and liberals than among conservatives and libertarians.

      “Sympathy here is a relative term. Absolutely speaking, progressives and liberals are very sympathetic towards babies and American soldiers, for example. It is only when sympathy is compared between different groups that significant differences emerge. For very conservative voters, American soldiers are on the top. For progressives, soldiers share fourth place with foreigners.”

    • I’m tempted to apply the liberal class analysis here and so let me give into that urge.

      There is something about liberal(-minded) academics and other professionals like Bloom and Haidt. They have access to much knowledge, but because of their social and class position their life experience is narrow in specific ways (Bloom at an ivy league college in Connecticut and Haidt at a private research university in New York City). Having a working class job in the Midwest has given me the insight that liberalism can be extremely different outside of the relatively isolated enclaves of the liberal class found mostly in coastal areas and big cities. Being a part of the liberal class creates a distortion. Also, working in academia creates another set of biases.

      The thing about academics is that, because of job pressure, they are usually forced to specialize and narrow their focus. There aren’t many academics who are experts in and well informed about multiple fields of study. Academia doesn’t inspire and encourage deep and broad, much less radical, thinking. An academic won’t likely advance their career that way. One way to advance your career, however, is to get media attention. Bloom seems like he is trying to do that. But to write to a more general audience, it often requires simplifying and making exaggerated claims. From my perspective, I’d prefer more detailed nuance from the likes of Bloom (and Haidt), but detailed nuance doesn’t get articles printed in mainstream newspapers and books published in the popular presses.

      Not that I’m against academics trying to communicate to the general public. I’d just rather they tried to raise the level of their readership than to lower themselves to the mass market. Then again, even academics have to make a living and so they write what sells. I realize I’m not the average reader and so not the target audience. On the other hand, my mom loved Bloom’s article. She showed it to me which is how it came to my attention. It got her thinking about a topic she had previously given little thought. And so maybe it served a purpose for the right audience. But my fear is that it simply confirmed my mom’s biases and assumptions about empathy, rather than genuinely and fully challenging her. My mom quickly put it into a conservative narrative.

      Even though my parents are conservatives, they are in some sense part of the liberal class: middle class professionals (both having been in the teaching field, my dad as a professor). They are more liberal than most conservatives and they raised their children to be liberals. Bloom and Haidt are the kind of liberals my parents can read and agree with. That says something about my parents’ conservatism, but it also says something about Bloom and Haidt’s liberalism. What they all share is a particular class worldview.

      Now that I think of it, some of the comments below the WSJ article did bring up a bit of a class analysis. More than a few people saw Bloom as a disconnected academic who has little understanding of what empathy means for most people in their lives. Something about Bloom’s article irritated many people, in maybe seeming haughty and dismissive. Down in the muck and mud of the real world, empathy is complex and doesn’t fit into neat categories. Trying to hold one’s morality above it all doesn’t seem helpful, like an overly dressed lady trying to keep the hem of her beautiful dress from touching the dirt.

  2. Here is a simple thought. Empathy, for most people, isn’t an abstraction to be discussed. It’s a small warm fire in a cold world. It’s the love of one’s family and the sense of community. Most people are simply trying to get by in life. Empathy can give not just comfort but meaning. We live in a society that is highly destructive to family, community, and other forms of social capital.

    People cling to what little empathy they can hold onto among those they know and love. Their boss and corporate management, politicians and bureaucrats, police officers and other low level officials, the mass of strangers in the world — these people aren’t likely to offer much empathy. People look for empathy where they can find it. This is what still draws many people to church and sometimes joining the military. Even identity politics can give a felt sense of being part of something that matters. Unions used to serve this role as well, back when unions were powerful social and political forces.

    We could reasonably talk about rational compassion if we lived in a society guided by rationally compassionate values and rationally compassionate leaders. But I doubt the average American expects to get genuine compassion, rational or otherwise, from the elites who condescend to tell them how to live their lives and how to think. To be frank, Bloom’s liberal class attitude and academic paternalism doesn’t put food on anyone’s table, doesn’t keep anyone from losing their house and becoming homeless, doesn’t keep yet more innocent people getting caught up in the legal system and imprisoned, and on and on.

    This is a cruel society we live in. If good liberals want something better, they have to be willing to fight for it. That requires they first understand the problems and understand their complicity. Empathy doesn’t cause people to be violent. People are only violent in a violent world. For people to be more compassionate, we need to create the conditions for compassion being possible. Desperate people have a hard time feeling compassionate when they are confronted by a ruling elite that is some combination of brutally oppressive and heartlessly dismissive, mixed with some occasional paternalistic condescension.

    I get the sense that someone like Bloom has no idea what most people are experiencing. He is living in an ivory tower. Talk of a greater compassion is a luxury and privilege of the economically comfortable. Yes, being poor and disenfranchised can make people mean and cruel. So, why does the liberal class act so indifferent to that poverty and disenfranchisement?

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