What could possibly be bad about feeling empathy? In this three-minute video, Yale professor of psychology and cognitive science Paul Bloom explains why empathy is “fundamentally, from a moral standpoint, a bad thing.”
The video is auto-play so we won’t embed it here, but you can watch it on The Atlantic‘s website.
Bloom is working on a book about his counter-intuitive idea. We’ll have to reserve judgment until we can read it, but based on the video it seems to me that there’s some sleight of hand going on here.
The idea that empathy is bad seems like it is packaging (and early book promotion) more than it is substance. Bloom isn’t really arguing against empathy; he is arguing against possibly misdirected forms of it that fail to ask how our actions can have a positive impact on the largest number of people. He wants to move from a subtly selfish kind of empathy (small gestures that make us feel good) to a more practical kind that leads to bigger, more rational, and more systematic outcomes.
It easy enough to follow his argument and nod along, but I’m still wondering what he would do if a stranger slipped and fell in front of him — wouldn’t he help her to her feet? What if he saw a car that had just drifted into a ditch — wouldn’t he check on the driver and passengers?
A lot of us, I’ll bet, feel that we are at our most human when we experience and act upon feelings of empathy. Whether that’s good or bad may be up in the air, but until Bloom shows us how to get (even) better at small acts of kindness and compassion, I hope we keep right on committing them.