[Note: I am late to the discussion on Paul Bloom’s “Against Empathy,” which appeared in the Boston Review earlier this year. But as far as I can tell, though Bloom’s essay received plenty of attention, it has not gotten nearly enough of the outright ridicule that it deserves.]
Fuck Paul Bloom. Fuck this pointlessly contrarian, Slatepitchy, technocratic, inhuman BS, and fuck Yale professors who live perfect lives and have happy families and then say we should feel others’ pain less because it might hurt us too much.
Such was my initial reaction to Paul Bloom’s “Against Empathy.” But then I began to empathize with him. Hang on a minute, he’s a human being, just like me. He’s a smart guy, he’s trying hard, and he’s fallible. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and engage his arguments. Thanks to a dash of empathy, then, I was able to calm down and think through where exactly the train of his thought plummets off the tracks and into the canyon. I have about nine carefully-considered reasons for despising him.
First, Bloom is lying, or at least guilty of massive intellectual dishonesty. He opens the piece with an anecdote. He says he goes up to people at parties and tells them he is writing a book about empathy. Then he pauses and says “I’m against it.” He does this because he enjoys horrifying them (though, like a dick, he pretends to be surprised when they react badly). But Bloom is misleading these people. He is not against empathy. As he concedes in his reply to critics, “I am not against empathy in general, just empathy as a moral guide.” This is not the same thing as being against empathy. But this second statement, too, is a lie; Bloom is not even against empathy as a moral guide. What he is in fact against is a particular kind of empathy as a moral guide, what he calls “emotional empathy,” which he distinguishes from “cognitive empathy.” (Actually, he even narrows this further; by “moral guide,” he actually means “not by itself a good basis for public policy,” which is also completely different.) The whole framing of his argument as being “against empathy,” then, is purely so that Bloom can make his point seem more significant than it is. (A cynic might say it is to drum up early publicity for the book he mentions in his first sentence of his essay. But I am not and have never been a cynic.)
I think I may be being too fair to Bloom here, however, by assuming that he has a coherent position and is simply misleading people about it in order to be provocative. In fact, his use of the word “empathy” is so vague and contradictory that it is impossible to actually know what he is arguing. Bloom likes to pretend he has found a neat distinction between the “good” cognitive empathy and the “bad” emotional empathy. But I defy any reader to come out of the essay actually knowing what Bloom is referring to, how one can actually, practicably follow his proposal to retain “compassion” and ditch “empathy.” Yes, he offers a definition. He says emotional empathy is “feeling the pain of others,” and that this is the “common sense of the word.” But then his examples don’t follow the “common sense” of the word at all: he suggests empathy would mean feeling all of the sorrow of a friend whose child has drowned. Yet nobody thinks of empathy this way, as being some kind of one-to-one correlation between one’s feelings and the feelings of others where every time I learn that someone’s child has been killed I literally feel as if my own child has been killed. (He has the brazenness to say that those who defend empathy are “confused” by the term’s meaning, when he himself has asked us to use both the “common sense” and his totally unused, extreme sense.)
It’s a tribute to Bloom’s expertise in fudging and circumlocution that he says of his interlocutors that “some of them found my argument persuasive—one even called it obvious—while others responded with abject horror.” Such a diversity of reactions often occurs when one has written so unclearly as to leave open the question of whether one has even said anything at all. What Paul Bloom is doing is the old trick of provoking his audience with a bold statement, then spending the rest of the text hedging and qualifying so completely that when one reacts viscerally to the thesis statement, he can reply “Aha, you’ve totally misinterpreted me, how terribly uncareful a reader you are.” I call this “Žižek’s Gambit.”
So Bloom’s argument could be either so banal as to be worthless, or an absolute rejection of a fundamental human belief. We don’t know, and this makes it hard to actually engage with his position. But let’s assume that he is arguing something moderately significant, and imagine that some of the familiar recurring themes in his text hold together as a coherent assertion, namely something about how feeling others’ emotional pain does not alone constitute a sound basis for social policy. Does it hold up?