Against Empathy Book Review

Thursday, 31 May 2018

"Against Empathy - The Case for Rational Compassion"

Rev Dr Lynne Frith reviewed "Against Empathy - The Case for Rational Compassion" by Paul Bloom. The review was published in Touchstone, March 2018.

AgainstEmpathy"Against Empathy - The Case for Rational Compassion"
By Paul Bloom
2017, Bodley Head, 304 pages
Reviewer: Lynne Frith

For those in the business of caring, which brings with it strong imperatives for loving kindness, compassion, empathy, and 'doing good', this book is both refreshing and challenging.

Paul Bloom claims that, among other things, empathy focuses on the immediate and short term, is biased and short-sighted, and favours the one over the many.

Empathy, he says, exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love. He is not against being a good neighbour and being kind, loving, and compassionate.

Rather, he has come to believe that relying on empathy will not make the world a better place.

Bloom bases his arguments around the definition that “Empathy is the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.” In doing so, he draws on a range of disciplines - including philosophy, psychology and neuroscience - to canvass arguments for and against empathy.

He does not deny that seeing the world through the eyes of those different from ourselves can be a force for good. However, empathy has its limitations. Because of its tendency to focus on those who are similar to ourselves and with whom we have a close connection it favours some people at the expense of others.

Bloom explores the difference between feeling what you think others are feeling and being compassionate, kind, and good. He sets out to make a case for using our heads rather than our hearts more in everyday life than we already do.

He examines the role emotions play in thinking through moral issues, and suggests that overriding our gut feelings and thinking through issues gives us the potential to be better human beings.

The chapters 'The Politics of Empathy', 'Intimacy', and 'Violence and Cruelty' address some of the complexities that confront and challenge us as humans.

For example, in the chapter on intimacy, which reflects on relationships as diverse as parent-child and patient-doctor, Bloom sets out the ways in which a surfeit of empathy in the caring professions contributes to burnout. He advocates instead for a stance with a degree of emotional distance while remaining caring, kind, and loving.

One of the things that struck me in reading this book is the importance of distinguishing between empathy and compassion and to understand how empathy can be problematic in moral decision-making.

'Against Empathy' provides reasoned discussion about both the negative consequences and the merits of empathy. The conversational style of writing makes the arguments accessible to a diverse audience.

Reading this book gave me much food for thought, particularly but not only in relation to the practice of ministry and the challenges many congregations find in discerning how to respond to both the visible suffering in the world and the constant invitations and demands to give more money, more time, more love, more everything.

I found the case against empathy compelling, and continue to reflect on those very tensions between empathy and compassion that I carry within myself, and that are always present in ministry.