AGAINST empathy? Really?

170213-hands(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) “In the moral domain…empathy leads us astray,” argues Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University. “We are much better off if we give up on empathy and become rational deliberators motivated by compassion and care for others.”  Bloom adopts a provocative stance to focus attention on what we in IB Theory of Knowledge would call “ways of knowing”, and ties emotion, imagination, and reason to ethics as an area of knowledge.
My initial reaction to this book, I’m afraid, is irritation. Its title Against Empathy strikes me as pure click-bait – though it catches me long enough to read its less flamboyant subtitle, The Case for Rational Compassion. I remain impatient as he bases his criticisms of empathy on a narrow definition of the term as actually feeling what others feel (as if one could!) rather than feeling for others (imagination and emotion as ways of knowing) but with some distance (possibly given by reason and knowledge). I’m even more impatient as he counter-argues a position on morality that isn’t characteristic of ethical systems in any case – that to be moral it’s enough just to feel empathy, without acting (effectively or otherwise).

Bloom’s strategy for communication, though, does seem to work. The whiff of controversy attracts media attention and gives him a forum for putting into popular discussion some ideas truly worth considering – ideas fully relevant to TOK and to the larger IB goals of engaging our students to care about the world and act effectively within it.

For a quick introduction to Bloom’s arguments and the discussion he’s managed to generate, I’ve listed a few articles and interviews in the References below. For fast access, the radio interview with Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current is good, especially since it provides a written transcript as well. Of the other articles, I’d say that the interview with Sean Illing in The Vox  brings out Bloom’s views well, with lots of bits that are quotable.  You might want to play a clip for your class or pull out a chunk of text to open discussion.

How can we benefit in TOK class from Bloom’s arguments?

For one thing, showing our classes that there are issues of contemporary debate around empathy and compassion for others is an immediate benefit. Of course, the fact that people are talking about something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worth talking about, nor that what they’re saying is necessarily worth listening to. However, a bit of contemporary buzz around ways of knowing and ethics, topics we tackle in any case, could give a greater sense of immediate relevance to a class.

For another, there are some specific TOK topics that are highlighted in Bloom’s arguments and the discussion around them. I would certainly not present classes with what he says as though they are to accept it at face value. Personally, I think that Bloom, to some extent,  is playing word games and setting up straw targets. At the same time, I think he makes some valuable points on ways of knowing and ethics.

It’s pretty easy, I think, to add some TOK framing. Here are some questions that come to my own mind:


Applied questions on Bloom: What does Bloom mean by “empathy”? How does his definition of the term affect what he wants to say about it? Would you define “empathy” in the same way that he does? If you don’t, can you still accept his definition, at least for the moment, in order to follow his argument?

Knowledge questions: Why is definition of terms considered important in areas of knowledge? In what ways do the central concepts we choose to treat in a field affect the knowledge we gain and exchange?

(NB.  Later.

Ways of knowing

Knowledge questions: What ways of knowing are involved in feeling empathy with others? What is the role of imagination? What is the role of emotion? Is it possible to feel someone else’s emotions exactly as they are feeling them – and how would we know if we did (or didn’t)? What is the role of reason?  Can we claim to “understand” in a general way, or to draw likenesses between situations, without involving reason?

Applied questions on Bloom: What are the objections that Bloom raises against empathy (in his definition) as moral in itself, and as a motivator of moral action? What biases does he identify in empathy? What are his arguments for “rational compassion” rather than empathy? What is the role he gives reason as a way of knowing?

Ethical perspectives

Applied questions on Bloom: What does he argue ethical action to be? What does he mean by “rational compassion”?

Knowledge questions: In what ways do different ethical systems that we touch on in Theory of Knowledge draw on emotion and imagination as way of knowing? In what ways do they draw on reason? What are the different roles of attitude and action? How would you integrate into these ethical systems, or their ethical perspectives, Bloom’s idea of “rational compassion”?


Knowledge questions, TOK: Do we have a moral responsibility to act for the wellbeing of others? To live ethically, is it enough to feel and think in a compassionate way, or is it important also to take action toward the wellbeing of others?

Questions for TOK and CAS: Would you call all action that is motivated by compassion ethical action, or is it important that it also be effective action? What would be the goals of action that is both ethical and effective? How would you measure the success of such action?

Applied questions on Bloom: To what extent do his objections to empathy (in his definition) spring from its biases and failure to galvanize action? (I think Bloom is valuable here.) How can the biases of empathy be overcome?

Ultimately, there are two things that I particularly like about Bloom’s arguments:

One thing I like is his focus on the biases of empathy. It’s important to look closely at the failures of empathy that he points out: the tendency to empathize with certain people or groups but not others, and to be gripped by the spotlight on individuals but less by the general case, even if it is more pressing! (The article in The Guardian is a good summary.) As we might consider as we treat intuition as a way of knowing, we’re cognitively bad at statistics but readily susceptible to stories! In our media age, it’s timely to look at how we can be caught just by stories and emotion, and provoked into action with our biases reinforced.

The other thing I like about Bloom is that he does argue for compassion, understanding, and action. He deals with the importance of reason for “rational compassion”, generalized beyond engaging stories and framed by larger ethical perspectives, such as offered by a utilitarian weighing of the larger situation – or, I would add, such as offered by reason-based approaches to deontological principles, or human rights. Moreover, he argues for the importance of understanding the perspectives of others, even if you don’t like them, or feel toward them any kinship or empathy.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t myself be inclined to dump empathy, with Bloom, and move to a different concept (“rational compassion”). Instead, I’d argue (in education) for means of enlarging empathy through extending imagination and good feeling to take in more groups. (More stories, more personal contact, more literature, more films!) I would also argue for better information on other groups of people, so that any sense of “feeling for them” would be modified by a better knowledge of how they might themselves view their situation or feel about it. Whether you call our response to the plight of others “empathy” or “rational compassion”, it is more likely to lead to helpful action if it is better informed.  Knowledge is valuable.  And arguing in favour of empathy should be never equated with arguing for empathy alone.


Paul Bloom interviewed by Anna Maria Tremonti,“Against Empathy: Yale psychology professor says too much emotion leads to bad moral decisions”, The Current, CBC radio. January 4, 2017. (This radio programme provides a full written transcript.)

Paul Bloom, interviewed by Indre Viskontas, podcast. “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion” Inquiring Minds #162, January 9, 2017.

Paul Bloom, “Against Empathy”, Boston Review. Sept 10, 2014.  (Note that this article is old.)

Sean Illing, “The case against empathy”, Vox, January 19, 2017.

Natalie Gjersoe, “Empathy is crucial to being a good person, right? Think again”, The Guardian, February 7, 2017.

Image from Pixabay, creative commons


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