In an unusual twist, Against Empathy is a book that I had been angling to read for some time, and I actually had a very specific idea in my head on what the book was about (namely ways that traditional empathy can lead to toxic behaviour on a personal level) now the book did touch a little on the topic but not as much as expected. Which is in no way a criticism, just more that I found the book more unexpected than anticipated!
Anywho – so what is Against Empathy all about?
The premise is more complex than meets the eye, but basically is about how rationally considering the morally correct thing to do beats generally being empathetic.
The two main thrusts of the argument is that broadly on a societal level, empathy is very emotive and bias and perhaps on the surface a ‘nice’ practise, tends to lead to all sorts of moral failures. For example we tend to empathize with singular instances of pain and suffering but fail to respond to larger scale issues. Bloom cleverly points out that we don’t have algebraic emotional responses – a disaster can cause 10x more deaths but we don’t feel 10x more upset.
The second is more on a personal level where Bloom reviews how empathy often feels supportive, however more often than not detached compassion is more beneficial for people.
Overall the basic premise of promoting rational compassion is difficult to refute. There are a few points that I didn’t agree with, for example Bloom claims that many people’s political opinions ‘don’t matter’ due to political powerlessness, often leading to different perspectives than immediate moral issues. Most people agree on rescuing a drowning child they encounter randomly, however many people do not agree on climate change. I don’t disagree that different scales of moral questions will result in different moral judgements, I think its more that how people come up with their judgements varies, and its extremely important as opposed to not mattering.
All in all the read was extremely interesting – albeit a little hard to know the ideal target audience. In the end I did select 4 stars as I felt the overall thesis was weakened by inconsistent style – at times it was a study heavy scientific almost academic review, others a more philosophical treatise, and also parts personal rant. This in itself isn’t necessarily the end of the world, and Bloom is fully aware of this presentation, but I thought it was a little disorganized and weakened the overall argument.