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the case against empathy

Yesterday I was listening to Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom being interviewed. He has written a book on empathy; one which turns it a little bit on its ear. He is not against it per se but argues against its sometimes misplaced energy and misuse.

After the Sandy Hook shootings the town was literally inundated with Teddy Bears; so many in fact that they had no place to put them. People's visceral reaction produced empathy which had made them react in a way that actually wasn’t helpful.

Mr Bloom’s point is that we can relate to cases that touch our hearts but then can also turn a blind eye to greater causes. Mass shootings bring out great emotions and yet are statistically insignificant compared to the murder problems in Chicago. Young black teens being killed might produce less empathy in some and yet it’s a far bigger issue.

Paul Bloom proposes we make our empathy more pragmatic and address issues by ignoring our personal feelings. The dirty homeless man on the corner requires our attention irrespective of a recoil reflex which might make us want to deliberately look away.

He brings out other examples as well.

Lobbyists for causes use empathy to great effect. They are media savvy and will point to an individual case in order to instil empathy. That poor old woman who didn’t have a gun to shoot her home intruder will be brought up by an NRA spokesman who proposes everyone be armed to the teeth; never mind that statistically speaking she is a blip on the radar and that applying their doctrine would be ludicrous.

Paul Bloom argues for a rational form of compassion that when wisely applied is a great weapon to mobilise resources to worthy causes instead of employed to manipulate sentiment to produce an undesirable outcome.

I think he might be correct.


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