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The biggest problem we have in our society and in the world right now,’ Barack Obama suggested before he became US President, ‘is an empathy deficit.’ It is a view that has become almost unquestioned, indeed almost unquestionable. ‘Behind every progressive policy,’ the American academic George Lakoff suggests, ‘is a single moral value: empathy.’ For the psychologist Simon Baron Cohen, at the root of evil lies ‘empathy erosion’.
Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, will have none of it. He writes about this in his recent book Against Empathy: the Case for Rational Compassion.
When some people think of empathy, they think of kindness. I think of war.
This might sound like one of those contrarian-for-effect arguments, an academic version of Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos baiting liberals. It is nothing of the sort. In Against Empathy, Bloom provides a thoughtful, considered, empirically-grounded case which challenges many notions that we often accept as good without really thinking them through.
Most of us would agree that charity is a good, and most of us give to charities. But many might also question whether charity should be, as effective altruists appear to believe, the key agent of social change. Many of the problems that effective altruists seek to alleviate, from disease to poverty, have their roots in particular political policies and social relations.
The question of alleviating poverty is not simply an empirical question of picking the most effective charity. It is also about the social relations and policies that underpin inequalities. Similarly, even ‘natural’ disasters, such as famines or earthquakes, are made better or worse by the social conditions that surround them. Ignoring the context of the problem may, therefore, be a deeply ineffective way of tackling it. Or, to put it another way, it is good to be rational, but what is it to be ‘rational’ when tackling social issues depends critically upon the context?
Bloom does not deny any of this, and Against Empathy may not be the book to explore such issues, even if they cannot be ignored if we want to discuss what it means to show ‘rational compassion’. What it is unquestionably, though, is an important and necessary challenge to the contemporary celebration of empathy and deprecation of reason.