Against Empathy

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Paul Bloom gave an interview on EconTalk to promote his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion and talk about why empathy (as opposed to compassion) is a leading motivator of inequality and immorality in society.

The quote about empathy in parenting decision making particularly struck me:

One of my sons came up to me freaking out because he had something . . . due the next day at school . . . it was a lot, and he hadn't started it.  He was panicked.  I felt inside me the same panic.  I love my kid and it's very hard not to feel panic mixed with inevitable anger, "how could you have waited so long?"

. . . I understand my kid; that's really important; I know what's bothering him . . . I have cognitive empathy; If I was just puzzled, as to.. so "are you upset?  there are tears running down from your face, does that mean you're sad" . . . -- you know, you want to understand your kid -- and i love my kid a hell of a lot.  In that period, I'm not always good at it, I said, let's take 5 minutes let's take a deep breath, let's make a plan, let's work it out. He's panicked, I'm not panicked, and because I'm not panicked, I'm a much better father to him and I'm able to help him more.

Case by case by case, so much of being a good parent involves not getting too shook up by the immediate suffering of your kids, for they will suffer. They will fall from the swings, they will be ostracised, they will be bullied, they will be teased, they will fail exams, they will be unlucky at love.  They will suffer like like every human suffers.  The most lucky human in the world will suffer a lot.  And as if as a parent if you suffer along with them, you're not there for them.  You're wrapped up in your own pain.

In fact, often being a good parent involves causing the short-term suffering of your kids.  Your kid wants to go to a party on a school night, or wants to do something reckless, and you say no, and he crumples because he's really sad?  Well, tough, you love him.

He also made an argument against for changing our political norms so that stories about individuals like "Joe The Plumber" or Jamiel Shaw aren't elevated as much as they are as determinants of what decisions we should make as a country.

I'd like to see a world where, when politicians do that, when demagogues do that, people boo. People recognize, "Yeah, I understand I'm constituted so that these will have an appeal to me, just like racism will have an appeal to me. But this is no fair. This is bogus." And, I don't think this is necessarily a fantasy. I've talked to people in other countries where there's actually different norms for political debate. And a sort of schlocky, "Let me tell you about Joe the plumber," or "Let me tell you about this poor mother," --- stuff that is sort of endemic in the United States --- there is not as much of it in England, for instance, where it's kind of viewed as just cheap. And I'd like to see a cultural change regarding political discourse, the sort of discourse that's accepted, regarding the sort of political claims that are made.

And, I think right now the stakes are actually very high. We're in a situation right now where people point to single, individual cases; and they try to get you to feel empathy for the victims. And, you know, as our friend Adam Smith pointed out, that is such a powerful catalyst for violence and hatred. And, you can't make that part of your psyche go away. But, just as with racism, you could kind of override it and recognize it. So, I'd like to see a cultural shift.  I'd like to see a case where politicians come up and they say, they basically come out of the closet and say, 'I'm a rational, cost-benefit kind of reasoner. I want to make the country better and I want to figure out the best way to do it,' and they don't get laughed off the stage.

So, I don't know precisely how many refugees in the United States to let in. But I do know that, for instance, telling me the story of some woman who was murdered by a refugee is not an answer to that question.

Q> How about showing me a Syrian child who is starving and crying?

Also not an answer. . . . My point is--I chose an example on one side of it. But, you know, I'll give the other side, then, for fairness. During the debate, one of the debates with Trump, Hillary Clinton was basically leaning a lot towards military action in Aleppo. And she kept saying, 'Have you seen the pictures? Have you seen the videos? How could you not want to act?' And I'm thinking, 'That's not even--it's a terrible argument.' It may persuade people. But I'm old enough to remember in previous wars it was exactly the same way: People would show pictures, tell horrible, heart-rendering stories, often real ones. And then they say, 'So, let's go and drop some bombs.' And do some invasion.

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