Book Review: Against Empathy – A Case for Rational Compassion

Summary in three words: Concise. Clear. Thought provoking. (7/10)

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Obama is quoted using the term many times. He is listed to have said:

The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.

If you think about the various horrific incidents that go on in this world – currently racists attacks towards Asians in countries outside of Asia have increased, let alone the struggles we see of African Americas in the USA, one would have a good argument why empathy has a strong necessity in this world. In general, I thought the more empathy the better. Wouldn’t it be great to have a society more empathic, more vulnerable and in tune with its feelings? So finding a book that speaks against it, had me intrigued.

Paul Bloom, professor at Yale explains in a logical, consistent pattern why he believes empathy is not a value we should focus so much on cultivating. Paul does not argue we should dismiss empathy at all. Rather, that we shouldn’t rely on it to make decisions. He carefully demonstrates how empathy distorts our judgment in every aspect of our lives, from philanthropy and charity to the justice system; from medical care and education to parenting and marriage. Without empathy, Bloom insists, our decisions would be clearer, fairer, and–yes–ultimately more moral. He brings example after example in light storytelling why relying on our empathy, we have in fact harmed other people around us.

An example is that we feel more empathy for people like us or people close to us. We are more likely to donate money and help people nearer to us, than to help people who may actually need it that are in another country. Giving your aunt 500 USD might not actually help her with her medical bills but it would feed a child in Africa for a whole month. Yet we are more likely to give our aunt the money than children on another continent. That’s the tricky thing with empathy. It isn’t rational or logical. At the same time, this is the beauty about empathy. That we can feel it in times that it doesn’t make sense. Empathy can make us go beyond what we know and who we are. It can give us insight we never had before without us having to leave our own homes, minds or bodies.

Empathy is though, good to a certain dosage. As a coach, I was taught empathy is not the tool you should use but rather compassion. By putting yourself into other people’s shoes you are too close to them to help them. You cannot be a pillar of support or logic if you are breaking down yourself from carrying the pain of being in this person’s shoes. While I am still a believer in the richness that empathy brings, I do have to say, Paul Bloom had a strong point that sometimes we shouldn’t rely too heavily on the feeling.

A light, insightful read even though the topic could seem heavy. Let me know what you thought!

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