A Different Perspective on Empathy

Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, takes a stance against using empathy as a motivational tool for charitable giving in his new book, “Against Empathy.” The definition of empathy used by many focuses on the ability to feel another person’s emotions or feelings in general. Bloom argues that this type of perspective is actually harmful in many different aspects when it comes to making decisions of morality. In a recent episode of Econtalk, Russ Roberts meets with Bloom to discuss this view of empathy that could be seen as controversial to many.

Bloom’s main argument focuses on this definition of empathy that is centered around literally feeling somebody else’s pains and sorrows. He argues that empathy is harmful because it transfers the anxiety, emotional pain, or sadness of an individual to another person. There are three different problems with this situation that Bloom sheds light on. One is bias, which is present during any human decision and another is using empathy to push an agenda that isn’t necessarily “good” for society. But the last point that Bloom makes coincides with economic theory on utility.

Bloom notes that empathy pushes people to zoom in on one individual and lose sight of overall welfare. Many charities put emphasis on saving individuals rather than groups of people, because it gathers more attention. But it is more efficient to allocate resources toward organizations that help a larger amount of people. Charity organizations gear their campaigns toward this idea of empathy to gain more support as it allows people to envision a cause that is more tangible. But in the eyes of an economist the most efficient use of somebody’s donation would be to fund an organization that provides the largest amount of marginal utility for society.  These charities would have a larger impact because they would help larger portions of the population. This perspective supports Bloom argument that empathy harmfully puts the spotlight on the one rather than the ten.

Bloom’s new perspective on empathy seems contrary to recent comments in the public about a lack empathy in society. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama advocated for an increase in empathy as a way to cure some of the social and economic gaps in America. A private school in London has even created a “empathy lessons” for their 7th year students. It seems that many people agree that a lack of empathy is to blame for many selfish acts in the society. With a majority of the world moving toward increased empathy, Bloom takes a step back in his new book.

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