Against Empathy

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Photograph: Samantha Stock

When asked what I am working on, I often say I am writing a book about empathy. People tend to smile and nod, and then I add, “I’m against it.” This usually gets an uncomfortable laugh.

This reaction surprised me at first, but I’ve come to realize that taking a position against empathy is like announcing that you hate kittens—a statement so outlandish it can only be a joke. And so I’ve learned to clarify, to explain that I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.

The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but here I am adopting its most common meaning, which corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more coldblooded process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy. I will follow this convention here, but we should keep in mind that the two are distinct—they emerge from different brain processes; you can have a lot of one and a little of the other—and that most of the discussion of the moral implications of empathy focuses on its emotional side.

Some degree of emotional empathy is bred in the bone. The sight and sound of another’s suffering is unpleasant for babies and, as soon as they are mobile enough, they try to help, patting and soothing others in distress. This is not uniquely human: the primatologist Frans de Waal notes that chimps will often put their arms around the victim of an attack and pat her or groom her.

Empathy can occur automatically, even involuntarily. Smith describes how “persons of delicate fibres” who notice a beggar’s sores and ulcers “are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation in the correspondent part of their own bodies.” John Updike writes, “My grandmother would have choking fits at the kitchen table, and my own throat would feel narrow in sympathy.”

And empathy can be extended through the imagination. In a speech before he became president, Barack Obama stressed how important it is

to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this—when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers—it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.

Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis”: when you empathize with others, you are more likely to help them. In general, empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it is a force against selfishness and indifference.

It is easy to see, then, how empathy can be a moral good, and it has many champions. Obama talks frequently about empathy; witness his recent claim, after his first meeting with Pope Francis, that “it’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.” In The Empathetic Civilization (2009) Jeremy Rifkin argues that the only way our species will survive war, environmental degradation, and economic collapse is through the enhancement of “global empathy.” This past June, Bill and Melinda Gates concluded their Stanford commencement address by asking students to nurture and expand their empathetic powers, essential for a better world.

Most people see the benefits of empathy as too obvious to require justification. This is a mistake.

Most people see the benefits of empathy as akin to the evils of racism: too obvious to require justification. I think this is a mistake. I have argued elsewhere that certain features of empathy make it a poor guide to social policy. Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.

In light of these features, our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside. Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction. Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of vaccinating children and responding to climate change. These acts impose costs on real people in the here and now for the sake of abstract future benefits, so tackling them may require overriding empathetic responses that favor the comfort and well being of individuals today. We can rethink humanitarian aid and the criminal justice system, choosing to draw on a reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences.

But even if you accept this argument, there is a lot more to life than public policy. Consider our everyday interactions with our parents and children, with our partners and friends. Consider also certain special relationships, such as that between doctor and patient or therapist and client. Empathy might not scale up to the policy level, but it seems an unalloyed good when it comes to these intimate relationships—the more the better.

I used to believe this, but I am no longer sure.

• • •

One of empathy’s most thoughtful defenders is the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. In his 2011 book The Science of Evil, he draws upon psychology and neuroscience to argue that the notion of evil should be replaced with “empathy erosion” and that a high degree of empathy is what makes for good people and good societies.

Individuals differ in their disposition to feel empathy, and Baron-Cohen posits an empathy curve that runs from Level 0, where there is no empathy at all, to Level 6, where one is “continually focused on other people’s feelings . . . . in a constant state of hyperarousal, such that other people are never off their radar.” He sketches one such Level 6 individual:

Hannah is a psychotherapist who has a natural gift for tuning into how others are feeling. As soon as you walk into her living room, she is already reading your face, your gait, your posture. The first thing she asks you is ‘How are you?’ but this is no perfunctory platitude. Her intonation—even before you have taken off your coat—suggests an invitation to confide, to disclose, to share. Even if you just answer with a short phrase, your tone of voice reveals to her your inner emotional state, and she quickly follows up your answer with ‘You sound a bit sad. What’s happened to upset you?’


Before you know it, you are opening up to this wonderful listener, who interjects only to offer sounds of comfort and concern, to mirror how you feel, occasionally offering soothing words to boost you and make you feel valued. Hannah is not doing this because it is her job to do so. She is like this with her clients, her friends, and even people she has only just met. Hannah’s friends feel cared for by her, and her friendships are built around sharing confidences and offering mutual support. She has an unstoppable drive to empathize.

It is easy to see what Baron-Cohen finds so impressive here. Hannah sounds like a good therapist, and it seems as if she would also be a good mother to young children.

But consider what it must be like to be her. Hannah’s concern for other people doesn’t derive from particular appreciation or respect for them; her concern is indiscriminate and applies to strangers as well as friends. She also does not endorse a guiding principle based on compassion and kindness. Rather, Hannah is compelled by hyperarousal—her drive is unstoppable. Her experience is the opposite of selfishness but just as extreme. A selfish person might go through life indifferent to the pleasure and pain of others—ninety-nine for him and one for everyone else—while in Hannah’s case, the feelings of others are always in her head—ninety-nine for everyone else and one for her.

It is no accident that Baron-Cohen chose a woman as his example. In a series of empirical and theoretical articles, psychologists Vicki Helgeson and Heidi Fritz have explored why women are twice as likely as men to experience depression. Their results suggest that this divergence is explained in part by a sex difference in the propensity for “unmitigated communion,” defined as “an excessive concern with others and placing others’ needs before one’s own.” Helgeson and Fritz developed a simple nine-item questionnaire, which asks respondents to indicate whether they agree with statements such as, “For me to be happy, I need others to be happy,” “I can’t say no when someone asks me for help,” and “I often worry about others’ problems.” Women typically score higher than men on this scale; Hannah would, I bet, score high indeed.

Strong inclination toward empathy comes with costs. Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety. Working from a different literature on “pathological altruism,” Barbara Oakley notes in Cold-Blooded Kindness (2011), “It’s surprising how many diseases and syndromes commonly seen in women seem to be related to women’s generally stronger empathy for and focus on others.”

Empathetic arousal is not the only force that motivates kindness.

The problems that arise here have to do with emotional empathy—feeling another’s pain. This leads to what psychologists call empathetic distress. We can contrast this with non-empathetic compassion—a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others. Such compassion is a psychological plus. Putting aside the obvious point that some degree of caring for others is morally right, kindness and altruism are associated with all sorts of positive physical and psychological outcomes, including a boost in both short-term mood and long-term happiness. If you want to get happy, helping others is an excellent way to do so.

It is worth expanding on the difference between empathy and compassion, because some of empathy’s biggest fans are confused on this point and think that the only force that can motivate kindness is empathetic arousal. But this is mistaken. Imagine that the child of a close friend has drowned. A highly empathetic response would be to feel what your friend feels, to experience, as much as you can, the terrible sorrow and pain. In contrast, compassion involves concern and love for your friend, and the desire and motivation to help, but it need not involve mirroring your friend’s anguish.

Or consider long-distance charity. It is conceivable, I suppose, that someone who hears about the plight of starving children might actually go through the empathetic exercise of imagining what it is like to starve to death. But this empathetic distress surely isn’t necessary for charitable giving. A compassionate person might value others’ lives in the abstract, and, recognizing the misery caused by starvation, be motivated to act accordingly.

Summing up, compassionate helping is good for you and for others. But empathetic distress is destructive of the individual in the long run.

It might also be of little help to other people because experiencing others’ pain is exhausting and leads to burnout. This issue is explored in the Buddhist literature on morality. Consider the life of a bodhisattva, an enlightened person who vows not to pass into Nirvana, choosing instead to stay in the normal cycle of life and death to help the masses. How is a bodhisattva to live? In Consequences of Compassion (2009) Charles Goodman notes the distinction in Buddhists texts between “sentimental compassion,” which corresponds to empathy, and “great compassion,” which involves love for others without empathetic attachment or distress. Sentimental compassion is to be avoided, as it “exhausts the bodhisattva.” Goodman defends great compassion, which is more distanced and reserved and can be sustained indefinitely.

This distinction has some support in the collaborative work of Tania Singer, a psychologist and neuroscientist, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, meditation expert, and former scientist. In a series of studies using fMRI brain scanning, Ricard was asked to engage in various types of compassion meditation directed toward people who are suffering. To the surprise of the investigators, these meditative states did not activate parts of the brain that are normally activated by non-meditators when they think about others’ pain. Ricard described his meditative experience as “a warm positive state associated with a strong prosocial motivation.”

He was then asked to put himself in an empathetic state and was scanned while doing so. Now the appropriate circuits associated with empathetic distress were activated. “The empathic sharing,” Ricard said, “very quickly became intolerable to me and I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to being burned out.”

One sees a similar contrast in ongoing experiments led by Singer and her colleagues in which people are either given empathy training, which focuses on the capacity to experience the suffering of others, or compassion training, in which subjects are trained to respond to suffering with feelings of warmth and care. According to Singer’s results, among test subjects who underwent empathy training, “negative affect was increased in response to both people in distress and even to people in everyday life situations. . . . these findings underline the belief that engaging in empathic resonance is a highly aversive experience and, as such, can be a risk factor for burnout.” Compassion training—which doesn’t involve empathetic arousal to the perceived distress of others—was more effective, leading to both increased positive emotions and increased altruism.

This brings us to the targets of empathy. As I write this, an older relative of mine who has cancer is going back and forth to hospitals and rehabilitation centers. I’ve watched him interact with doctors and learned what he thinks of them. He values doctors who take the time to listen to him and develop an understanding of his situation; he benefits from this sort of cognitive empathy. But emotional empathy is more complicated. He gets the most from doctors who don’t feel as he does, who are calm when he is anxious, confident when he is uncertain. And he particularly appreciates certain virtues that have little directly to do with empathy, virtues such as competence, honesty, professionalism, and respect.

Leslie Jamison makes a similar point in her new essay collection The Empathy Exams. Jamison was at one time a medical actor—she would fake symptoms for medical students, who would diagnose her as part of their training. She also rated them on their skills. The most important entry on her checklist was number thirty-one: “Voiced empathy for my situation/problem.” But when she discusses her real experiences with doctors, her assessment of empathy is mixed. She met with one doctor who was cold and unsympathetic to her concerns, which caused her pain. But she is grateful to another who kept a reassuring distance and objectivity: “I didn’t need him to be my mother—even for a day—I only needed him to know what he was doing,” she writes. “His calmness didn’t make me feel abandoned, it made me feel secure. . . . I needed to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo.”

Or consider friendship and love. Hannah’s “soothing words,” her “sounds of comfort and concern” and mirroring of others’ feelings describe how a certain type of therapist treats a client or how a certain type of parent treats an anxious toddler. But this isn’t how friendship usually works. Friendship is rooted in symmetry and equality, shared projects, teasing and jokes and gossip, all of which are absent from a therapeutic relationship. While I might benefit from a friend’s therapy if I were feeling deeply anxious or depressed, I don’t, on the whole, want my friends to treat me like a suffering patient, softly murmuring reassurances when they detect that I’m out of sorts. Hannah’s “You sound a bit sad. What’s happened to upset you?” exemplifies what Jamison means when she says, “Empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion.”

Putting aside the extremes, do more empathetic people make better friends and partners? To my knowledge, this has never been studied. Certainly we want our friends to understand us and to care about us. It would be unnerving if someone I love never flinched in the face of my suffering or lit up at my joy. But this is not because I want them to mirror my feelings; rather, it is because if they love me, they should worry about my misfortunes and be pleased when I do well. From a purely selfish standpoint, I might not want their empathetic resonance, particularly when I am feeling down. I would prefer that they greet my panic with calm and my sadness with good cheer. As Cicero said about friendship—but he could just as well have been talking about close relationships in general—it “improves happiness and abates misery, by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.”

• • •

When we think about individuals on the other extreme, what Baron-Cohen would describe as empathy Level 0, we naturally think about psychopaths, sociopaths, or antisocial/psychopathic personality types (the terms typically are used synonymously). Psychopaths are identified in poplar culture as the embodiment of evil. The term describes everyone from predatory CEOs to callous politicians to cannibal-killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and the fictional Hannibal Lecter.

Being a good person is related to more distanced compassion, along with self-control, and a sense of justice.

There is a standard test for psychopathy developed by the psychologist Robert Hare. It is used to make legal decisions about criminal offenders, including whether they should be incarcerated for life, and used as well by experimental psychologists who give the test to undergraduates to explore how their scores relate to, for instance, attitudes toward sexual violence and their style of moral reasoning. If you like this sort of thing, you can take the test online, rating yourself on traits such as “glibness/superficial charm,” “lack of remorse or guilt,” and “promiscuous sexual

The most important item for many people is “callous/lack of empathy.” Many popular treatments of psychopathy, such as Jon Ronson’s 2011 bestseller The Psychopath Test, see a lack of empathy as the core deficit in psychopathy. It is here that cognitive and emotional empathy come apart, because many people diagnosed with psychopathy are excellent at reading others’ minds. This is what enables them to be such masterful manipulators, con men, and seducers. But the emotional part is thought to be absent—they cannot feel other people’s pain—and this is why psychopaths are such terrible people.

This might be the popular picture, but the truth is more complicated. For one thing, as philosopher Jesse Prinz points out, psychopaths suffer from dulling of just about all emotional responses, not just empathy. This overall blunting of feeling—or “shallow affect”—is one of the criteria on the checklist. It was observed by Harvey Cleckley in The Mask of Sanity, his 1941 book that provided the first clinical description of psychopathy:

Vexation, spite, quick and labile flashes of quasi-affection, peevish resentment, shallow moods of self-pity, puerile attitudes of vanity, and absurd and showy poses of indignation are all within his emotional scale and are freely sounded as the circumstances of life play upon him. But mature, wholehearted anger, true or consistent indignation, honest, solid grief, sustaining pride, deep joy, and genuine despair are reactions not likely to be found within this scale.

It is unclear, then, whether an empathy deficit is at the core of psychopathy, or whether it is just one facet of a more general problem. One can explore this by looking at how well scores on the callous/lack of empathy item and certain related items are correlated with future bad behavior. In an extensive review of the literature, psychologist Jennifer Skeem and her colleagues note that these items are weak predictors of violence and criminality. The reason why the psychopath test has any predictive power at all is that it assesses past bad behavior—juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, parasitic lifestyle, and so on—as well as factors such as lack of inhibition and poor impulse control. To put it another way, you can remove the empathy question from the scale, and it would be about as good at picking out psychopaths.

What about aggressive behavior more generally? Are more aggressive people less empathetic? Even I, a skeptic, would imagine there is some substantive relationship between empathy and aggression, since presumably someone with a great deal of empathy would find it unpleasant to cause pain in others. But a recent review summarizing data from all available studies of the relationship between empathy and aggression reaches a different conclusion. The authors of “The (non)relation between empathy and aggression: Surprising results from a meta-analysis” report that only 1 percent of the variation in aggression is accounted for by empathy. This means that if you want to predict how aggressive a person is, and you have access to an enormous amount of information about that person, including psychiatric interviews, pen-and-paper tests, criminal records, and brain scans, the last thing you would bother to look at would be measures of the person’s empathy.

Finally, one decisive test of the low-empathy-makes-bad-people theory would be to study a group of people who lack empathy but also lack the other traits associated with psychopathy. Such individuals do exist. Baron-Cohen notes that people with Asperger syndrome and autism typically have low cognitive empathy—they struggle to understand the minds of others—and have low emotional empathy as well. (As with psychopaths, there is some controversy about whether they are incapable of empathy or choose not to deploy it.) Despite their empathy deficit, such people show no propensity for exploitation and violence. Indeed, they often have strong moral codes and are more likely to be victims of cruelty than perpetrators.

• • •

Am I saying that empathy is irrelevant or a corrosive influence on how we treat those around us? This would be too strong a conclusion. There are many studies that look at individual differences in empathy levels and correlate these levels with real-world behavior, such as willingness to help someone in need. Many of these studies are poorly done. They often measure empathy through self-report, so you don’t know whether you are assessing actual empathy as opposed to the degree to which people see themselves, or want to be seen, as empathetic. Furthermore, people who help others more may assume that they are empathetic, since people often make judgments about themselves by drawing conclusions from their own behavior.

Nonetheless, there is some evidence that being more empathetic influences how likely one is to help in certain circumstances. The relationship is often weak, and not all studies find it. Still, given laboratory findings showing that inducing empathy increases the likelihood of altruistic behaviors, it would be wrong to dismiss empathy’s role in our moral lives.

But we know that a high level of empathy does not make one a good person and that a low level does not make one a bad person. Being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice. Being a bad person has more to do with a lack of regard for others and an inability to control one’s appetites.

So how much empathy do we really want in ourselves, our children, our friends, and our society? If you want to answer that question, it helps to think about a quite different emotional response—anger.

Empathy and anger share a lot. Both emerge in early childhood and exist in every human culture. Both are present in other primates such as chimpanzees. Both are social. Unlike emotions such as fear and disgust, which are often elicited by experiences and inanimate beings, empathy and anger are mainly geared toward other people. And they are both moral. The identification that comes with empathy can motivate kind behavior toward others; anger is often a response to perceived unfairness, cruelty, and other immoral acts.

Buddhist texts are even more skeptical about anger than they are about empathy. They see it as destructive of the individual and the world at large. This is a valid concern. But if I could determine the emotional life of my child, I wouldn’t leave out the capacity for anger. The emotional force of anger can protect us and those we are close to from exploitation and predation. Someone who could never get angry would be the perfect victim. Anger can also be a prod to moral behavior more generally; many great moral heroes—Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance—have been individuals who let themselves get angry at situations that others were indifferent to.

But I would worry about the irrational, arbitrary, and self-destructive aspects of anger, so I wouldn’t wish that my child possess too much of it. And I would make sure to add plenty of intelligence, concern for others, and self-control. I would want to ensure that anger is modified, shaped, and directed by rational deliberation. It would occasionally spur action, but it would be subservient to the capacities for rationality and compassion. If we were all constituted in this way, if we could all put anger in its place, ours would be a kinder and better world.

That is how we should think about empathy too.

This is a great article. 
I've seen first hand how an abundance of empathy can induce a self-destructive nocebo effect where the person literally adopted or caught a non-contageous illness from another.   Social contagion fueled by empathy. 
Cultivating sympathy or compassion rather than empathy seems to be a good solution. 

had to read this article for tok.....

I recent politics I have found myself unable to understand the opposition.  It strikes me that they operate without logic and in this no amount of compassion I generate will assist me in understanding the motivations and reasoning of some of these people.  I do not want to discuss politics here so I will be purposefully vague regarding the camp of politics which I refer to.  What actually has lent a great part in my expressing effectively to them is the use of empathy.  By knowing how they feel when they are saying things to me that either a) are pure idiocy brandished like a grail or b) not following the relationship of cause and effect as I see it to occur I can then respond to them in a way that makes sense to them.  Now I have seen arguements here that one cannot actually know what another person thinks or feels and while this may be true I would lump that sort of thinking in with Determinisim's denial of freewill and refute it with: the illusion of its truth, even if it is not so, is convincing to the point that I will operate as if it is true.  That said, by this use of empathy I have found that previously incomprehensible points of view to be accessible.  Serial killers, terrorists, saints and selfsacrificers- to rattle off the extremes- in all their deviation from the general model of thinking are not alien when empathy is used.  Where a stance is understood it can begin to be reasoned with on its own terms (really the only terms people will respond to) or begin to be emulated in an effective way.
I can see the negative manifestations empathy manifests in the social order of today (though empathetic arrousal addiction should not be a defamer of empathy itself just as water should not be defamed by someone drowning themselves) but have to disagree with the thrust that the negative outweigh the positive.

I totally agree! Empathy is not at all the path you should follow if you want to do good overall. I will give an example with my job, See, I work as a gutter cleaner. The other day I found a whole nest of rats in a client's gutter. They were babies and their mom left them there, no more than a week old. They deserved better but a potential spread would cost the owner thousands and headaches and rats are already overpopulating so there was no question about it- we had to remove the babies. This, although an obvious choice, was in favour of the overall good, but no empathy was followed. Gread read, thanks to the author for finally saying it out loud.

Regards, Steward
Gutter cleaning technician

Extremely well written and nice arguments. It isn't very hard to argue why someone shouldn't care, is it? I could easily argue that caring is unbalancing and self-destructiive to the individual needs and survival, from a very realistic point of view. However, I doubt that when most people are talking about empathy recently in the news, and elsewhere, it means that we should take it to the extremes outlined completely in this article. I enjoyed reading it. I sympathize with the fact that it is exsausting to empathize with everyone all the time. But I don't think the objective is to try and empathize with everyone, anymore than you should eat everything you see at Walmart. You would probably die too. And who is going to care about you? Exactly. If you are going to be a crazy person, and take everything so absolute and black and white, you are going to have a very hard time trying to understand the simple value of empathizing with other people, occationally, when needed. But do you need to all the time? No way.  I don't think that is what people are talking about when they are thinking about empathizing more with other people. It isn't another idealogical theory. It is just the simple process of acknowledging someone elses feelings. I think arguing about that is like arguing why anyone should care about anyone else. Just bringing some marshmellows to the potluck at work because you have to do it is essentially compassion. Empathy is more about understanding the other people at the potluck and their feelings. The reason for bringing the mashmellows to the potluck. To just stick with compassion instead of really having to care abotu other people's feelings doesn't need an argument. That is the problem. Nobody cares anymore. You don't need to argue that fact. But if you take empathy too far like anything else, you are screwed too. Making up excusing not to care is as old mankind.  And I think we can do better.

I think message is pretty clear  and I totally agree. You comment and congratulate how well it is written and put together and yet in next sentence which puzzles me, did you really read it? arguing for not to care, seriously? lol 

The words empathy, compassion, sympathy, all contain elements of understanding and emotion. They seem not clearly defined here. I take empathy as the ability to reproduce internally the emotions of someone else. Compassion involves not only the comprehension of somone else's but the reference to a judgmental system independent of that comprehension favoring aid to suffering to remedy it. Sympathy, it seems to me, also is fairly close to compassion and only peripherally internalizing someone else's feelings. A sadist could well be empathic and deeply understand someone else's suffering but take delight in it without sympathy. The whole business is rather vague and difficult to clearly analyse

I think the distinction between empathy and compassion might have been explored further.
Empathy means having the ability to put yourself in another's shoes and think as they do. It does not have any moral value in itself. Bullies and sadists must be empathetic to be good at bullying. They need to know exactly how to get under the skin of their victims.
A compassionate person, on the other hand also has empathy but acts out of a transcendent moral sense. As the author points out, a compassionate person may at times ignore empathetic feelings. At a crash site, for example, a rescuer may need to suppress what could be overwhelming feelings of empathy for the victims and focus on the practical work of rescuing those in need.
In short, compassion is what is important in life.

Yes, I think definitions need more spelling out as well because individual people reverse meanings of empathy and compassion. Reading Dr. Bloom's article and definitions, I noticed again that he defines them in reverse to the way I think of them. So randomly checked an online dictionary, where they also seemed to be the reverse of his definition (unless I misunderstand). Not to argue which definitions are correct, but would certainly insert something about the confusion.
Throwing this one in as well:

The real question is can compassion arise without empathy. The author seems to think this is possible. I don't think it is. Theories of education and behavioural change posit that we learn quicker and value more things that we experience ourselves - we experience things not merely cognitively but emotionally and physically as well. Empathising helps us to learn about what others are going through by imagining we are experiencing it ourselves - the distinctions the author makes between "cognitive" and "emotional" empathy, and between "empathy" and "compassion", are a bit vague at times. Compassion is not separate to empathy, it is the follow on from empathy when the empathy has the effect of leading to action. It is true you can be empathetic without being compassionate - for example someone who is too overcome by emotion to be able to offer assistance in a time of need - but I do not think you can be compassionate without being empathetic to some degree. An aid worker who helps out in a disaster spot because they are being paid to do it while feeling nothing for the victims is not being compassionate, although they are being charitable. The person who set up the charity he works for would not have set it up in the first place without the capacity for empathy I would argue. What the author is calling "compassion" in this article I think is just a "useful" byproduct of empathy - an empathetic response tempered by reason to become a productive outcome. When somebody helps us when we are down, we make value judgments about why they are helping us. If they are only doing it because they have reasoned it is socially useful or will boost their image, we will resent them even if they are offering practical assistance. If they have taken the time to imagine what we are going through, to empathise, we respect their assistance more. 

Hi Paul,
I enjoyed many of your questions :), but you can challenge yourself further!
Are you projecting your own bias/worldview on Hannah? Why do you presume to know her motives and modus operandi? 
There is an infinite amount of data in the world, and jumping to conclusions while efficient is the easy way out of thinking harder. What happens when you stop coming to conclusions?
Is there such a thing as a right answer?
Is there such a thing as a wrong question?
Carpe Diem!,
lil progress

I agree with the above commentor. There seems to be a bit of overgeneralization about Hannah, all based on heresay. Unless this writer met her directly and had a chance to psychoanalyze her, he really can't speak to her guiding forces/principles/urges.
All that aside, empathy like all things is good in moderation. Most people are able to balance self-preservation with empathy. People who are in the helping professions experience burnout if they do not learn how to do this, as they are constantly in a position where they are required (or should) empathize with clients or patients.
I would not argue empathy is bad simply because it can be taken to an extreme, or used for bad things. Misuse of a social experience/tool is not the same as the tool itself being bad. If anything, I think people distance themselves too much from situations because empathizing at all would be overwhelming. People also tend to not empathize with plights that ultimately affect us all, because it does not have an immediate impact on them. But, that is my opinion and perception.

My problem with this essay is that there seems to be nothing wrong with it. In compliance with the usual protocols, in common with international diplomacy, boardroom meetings and the like, the ‘terms of reference’ are clearly spelled out up front. Accordingly, in this case, we are left in no doubt as to what ‘empathy’ is. The primary objective being to exclude at the get-go every oddball notion as to what empathy might have been. But isn’t.
While I understand very well why it is always necessary to get our dictionary-defined terminology more or less on ‘the same page’ in the opening remarks, that is not actually where any of us live. Words such as empathy, love, freedom and happiness are well-supplied with formal, unambiguous definitions, to be sure. But that offers little governance as to how these words are freely bandied about down in the market square.
An example. Speaking of international diplomacy. A curious phenomenon that is strictly governed by countless written and unwritten rules of etiquette, decorum, convention, opaque ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ and, of course, the usual back-room intrigues. But one thing is universally understood. Without clearly defined ‘terms of reference’, spelled out black on white in every party’s own language, there can be no contemplation of any decent sort of peace shindig.
Take the Middle East. The most obvious case in point. In the entire sixty-six years since the establishment of the State of Israel, every so-called Peace Conference has stipulated that Jerusalem is non-negotiable.
Each of the many parties that have ever been persuaded to sit across any kind of table, from Geneva to Oslo, with all their impeccable credentials and the most noble of objectives, being to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution of this intractable conflict, have always agreed emphatically that Jerusalem is non-negotiable. Only one problem.
For the Israelis, that always means Jerusalem is the undivided capital of the Jewish State. And for all the others, it always means Jerusalem is the undivided capital of a sovereign Palestinian State. In perpetuity.
That’s my problem with words like ‘empathy’. When the receptionist down at the insurance office says, “I’m sorry Mr Smith, I really do empathise, what with the loss of your house an’ all. But you were not covered for your guest smoking in bed”. What is she really saying?

What if you can appreciate the experience and motivation of others deeply, but reject their behavior?  What is an appropriate term for this reaction?  You can appreciate and understand the social and religious factors which drive Muslim extremists, for example, but you may not support their behavior.  Is there a name for this position?  It is surely not compassion or empathy.

Why is it not empathy? 

It absolutely is empathy!

The only information that humans can share directly is that which we cocreate in language. In other words, innner subjective experiences only become known through language. Assuming one can experience true empathy of another's inner subjective experiences is dubious because it holds that the private world of another person can be known by another person when, in actuality, all we can know is the verbal expressions of another’s experiences. Seeking empathy results in a seemingly endless hermeneutic loop where every answer begets another question. We never get closer to knowing the person. 


There are no thoughts per se in the head. Instead, it is through our verbal expressions, language—in our relationships—that inner subjective experiences become known to another person. Moreover, socially constructed dialogue creates the meaning that we traditionally think of in terms of the another person's inner subjective experiences. Thus, rather than striving for empathic understanding of an individual's inner subjective experience—a futile endeavor when considered from a relational perspective—I prefer to think of how words function in relationship to create meaning or intersubjective experience. Therefore, the focus is on relational, rather than mental, processes.

“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen …”
“The only information that humans can share directly is that which we co-create in language.”
Except, I would go further. I suggest two people cannot share anything in any meaningful way. Of course, the words we use always depend on a thousand qualifications. To me, ‘information’ is that sense only my brain finally makes of the raw sensory data. I don’t believe the expression, “I love you” is information at all. The mere sight and sound of the familiar, wholly arbitrary word-string requires highly complicated processing. Both by the speaker/writer and the one thus addressed.
The pretext being what private knowledge each brings to the table. The context: the prevailing circumstantial ambience. And the subtext: what each miraculously ‘reads between the lines’. Quite unique, for each party. Presumably, every human brain follows a similar protocol. But each, having accumulated its unique memory by diverse ways and means, comes up with a very different version of ‘reality’. Try as we might, I think we can never ‘share’ what I see and hear and what you see and hear. As intuitively perverse as I know that sounds.
“… inner subjective experiences only become known through language.”
Our own, perhaps. If I don’t mentally articulate, however garbled, what I believe I feel [or, better yet, keep a diary], I can’t know what I’m thinking. As for those of the other, I’m afraid, that is altogether beyond finding out. I know what I said. I know what you said. Which only leaves what we [might have] meant. “And good luck”, as they say, “with that.”
“Assuming one can experience true empathy of another's inner subjective experiences is dubious because it holds that the private world of another person can be known by another person when, in actuality, all we can know is the verbal expressions of another’s experiences.”
Yes, and there’s the rub. What do I believe I meant [always in the past] by what I said? And what do I believe you meant by what you said? And, just to make it interesting, how long will that back-of-the-envelope account remain accurate? We know that ‘to assume’ is make an ass of u and me. But I do believe we have little choice but to give ourselves satisfied with ‘intelligent approximations’ of what ‘he said – she said’. Every word has a use-by date. Expressed in minutes and seconds.
“Seeking empathy results in a seemingly endless hermeneutic loop where every answer begets another question. We never get closer to knowing the person.”
And it gets worse. Whenever I look in the bathroom mirror [not often] and stare into my eyes, what do I see? The shaman and ministers and necromancers and philosophers said that’s my guilty soul. Bunk. I see in the mirror what I don’t like to see: what “I” present to the world – an Etruscan-masked ‘persona’, a convenient figment, replete with a vast repertoire, rôles, moods and voiced inflections, as the moment dictates – is not my “conscious self”.
The one incessantly talking inwardly. Weaving while I sleep impossible dreams. We call that “contemplation”. Just suppose, ‘thinking’ is nothing more mysterious than the brain’s genetic predisposition for intuitively stringing random words together. Bits of books, movies, people, places … Unique to each of us.
“There are no thoughts per se in the head. Instead, it is through our verbal expressions, language—in our relationships—that inner subjective experiences become known to another person.”
Here I think the difficulty is exposed. Earlier you wrote, “inner subjective experiences only become known through language”. But now, “There are no thoughts per se in the head”. That “per se” suggests to me the predicament of every writer: how to convey the meaning of meaning. I don’t believe “the inner subjective experiences” of the other are knowable to me. In fact, I rather doubt that my own experience is even accessible to language. The stories I tell later are something else. How often we hear it said, “words cannot describe what I feel”.
“Moreover, socially constructed dialogue creates the meaning that we traditionally think of in terms of another person's inner subjective experiences.”
My only problem with that is, I don’t believe words can be relied upon to accurately convey meaning. At all. That’s why I think I can, ahem, ‘empathise’ with how unfeeling readers will respond to such a text. Honestly, the number of times I’ve had the “pomo” millstone hung around my neck and cast into the deepest sea. Just for raising “socially constructed discursive practices”. Is there no ‘Mitleid’ anymore?
“Thus, rather than striving for empathic understanding of an individual's inner subjective experience—a futile endeavour when considered from a relational perspective—I prefer to think of how words function in relationship to create meaning or intersubjective experience.”
What I always say at such moments, standing up, is, “Meaning is not a given. Meaning is not created with words. Meaning is the sense only your brain makes of the text. That’s all. What the other makes of it is entirely beyond conception for me.” Then I run for the door. [Not anymore.]
“Therefore, the focus is on relational, rather than mental, processes.”
Hey. Isn’t that my “pretext-context-subtext” formula? [This is where I always see Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. The fingers just not touching. Brilliant.]

Indeed, definitions are fundamental. Etymologically, "empathy" suggests one's feeling for another, maybe "feeling her pain," and some learned people use the term that way. But Barack Obama, for instance, did not, in the famous statement quoted by Bloom above. No, empathy would "see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us. . . ." It requires effort because, as Obama suggests, it is a way of thinking ("when you think like this"). We reconstruct the circumstances of others with attention and imagination, or we fail to see what is going on. Whether or not this is what those chimps do I doubt, but for us, an effort is required to recognize how another's experience differs from our own; without it, we may imagine, if our lives have been lucky, that people whose lives are hard just aren't trying very hard, etc.
Of course, if we want to define empathy as a feeling, it will by itself incline us sometimes to act unfairly, as Bloom says. But without it (as Obama and others conceive it), there is little chance of our understanding the impact of our choices on other people at all.

"But without [empathy] (as Obama and others conceive it), there is little chance of our understanding the impact of our choices on other people at all."
Yes, the people who died in Fast and Furious, Bengazi, numerous Federal SWAT raids on medical marijuana facilities (exceeding in number those of Bush), similar raids on farmers selling raw milk, Gibson Guitars (endangered wood), and the Pakistani wedding party that was drone killed would like to thank Barack Obama for his empathy. 
That's all turned out so nicely. Thank heavens we've been spared the cold calculous of consitutional authority and the rule of law. Good feelings are so much better. 

Two things to say in response to that Don:
   1.)    Not the place nor the time for this 
    and 2.)   It is possible tpo fully feel empathetic connection with someone and yet act against their best interest  in favor of your own.  Case in point: the wedding party mistakenly hit by a drone strike.  I am certain that there are few but the most extreme racist who cannot feel a pang of empatheticly prompted shame for that mistake yet at the same time, despite that, would rather have both drones carrying out such operations and in the larges picture have such operations carried out to begin with rather than the alternative of being victimized by every terrorist cell that can get themselves a soapbox and a pipe bomb.

Paul, you've definitely presented a very cogent argument. I've been following this research for the past few years, and came to a very similar conclusion to the one that you've presented here. You're exactly right that compassion goes miles further than empathy - though I'd further argue that it's really at the conjunction of compassion and empathy both that people find the best courses of actions.
However, I'm disappointed to hear that the soundbite you're giving people casually is that you're "against empathy." As several commenters have noted, the colloquial definition of empathy is so intertwined with thoughtfulness, kindness, and compassion that you're likely giving the majority of people you encounter the idea that those notions are counterproductive. The rest of your article is great, but I was incredibly turned off by the sensationalist presentation in the lede.  As this gets publicized, I'd guess that the vast majority of people who find this information interesting are likely to simply remember you as "the man against empathy", as Malcolm Gladwell is "that guy with the theory about 10,000 hours".  If one acts on that basis alone, without the ensuing distinctions, it's very easy to draw the conclusion that one can safely ignore other people's feelings and simply pay attention to one's own as a guide for behavior.
I'd also like to add that I think it's incorrect to say that empathy often has no place even in intimate relationships. You're absolutely right that sadness is often best reacted to with good cheer.  What about excitement, though? If a dear friend is excited about something, and you decide it would be kinder to tell them that you suspect that their plan won't work out (whether it actually IS kinder is of course still in question, but that aside) - I'd think that you're likely to find yourself confused when your friend is, oddly, offended that you chose to decide what's best for them instead of sharing in their excitement and trusting that they will be able to handle things themselves.  What can be deemed compassionate or kind is not well-defined enough across situations to make it as simple as just paying attention to those mental processes instead of empathy.
I think this topic is incredibly important and deserves a more nuanced treatment than a casual conversational soundbite can really cover. Distinguishing these mental processes from one another is a difficult task for the best of us, and knowing when it is best to use each as a guide for behavior still more complicated. I hope that by the time this reaches book form, you've presented a manifesto that can be summarized better than "empathy is bad, don't make your decisions on that basis".
You've clearly done all the required research. Do the topic more justice than this.

In light: When I look at the One I see Oneself, as I see truth is the Oneness of All.  
Be One,
And as you divided empathy and compashion I would say One leads to the other. Like the past leads to the future the division of now is infinitely undefinable.
As for the excersise of empathy leading to exhaustion, I would add that it is this very excersise that leads to the strengh of heart.
A Very Deer Story
I was riding my bicycle through the forest some days ago and came across two baby fawns standing in the road facing me. I stopped to say hello and found them so innocent and beautiful, so curious, and unafraid. But then I heard the sound of a bus coming our way and while one of the fawns stayed the other jumped back into the cover of the woods. For safety I stuck out my hand and waved the bus to a stop. The other fawn had seen enough now and jumped back like the other, vanishing into the same woods. The bus went on its way and as I was about to leave the mother, the doe suddenly stepped out of her hiding place to show me her true beautiful nature, her Oneness, her All. As I gazed at her our eyes met, and into her eyes she gazed back into mine. I saw a heartfelt thank you in those deer eyes, or rather was it merely just a reflection of my own?
Thank you,

One must first discuss the meaning of the words empathy and compassion.  Both are rooted in passion or pathos which can be defined as suffering.  The question moves to the prefixes em- and com- which are difficult.  I would claim that em- could be described as "within" and com- as "near".
It can be said that when one is empathetic one is in a state of suffering.  On the other hand when one is compassionate they are simply aware of suffering.
Now what does it mean to suffer, more precisely to suffer psychologically?  It would appear that the only suffering one could experience is their own.  I have suffered, I would make the claim that every human being has suffered.  Is all psychological suffering the same?  I think it is but perhaps it doesn't matter. 
What does matter is can human beings or any human being be free from psychological suffering?  I can't see how the continuation or amplification of suffering can be of any help.  When one is suffering can one, I dare say, love?  I would exclude empathy and anger, just another form of suffering, from being of any use.
So can I free myself from suffering and therefor have the capacity to help others?  I would say in order to do that one would first need to understand ones own suffering.  Perhaps to be completely aware of one's own suffering is freedom from suffering, which is compassion, which is intelligence, which is love.
I think to understand that is to be aware of the total movement of one's own consciousness. But I wouldn't know.

After reading Mr. Blooms reply to the responses.  I see the argument boiled down to emotional understanding as opposed to intellectual understanding.  I would say that both are forms of processing information within the brain.  Regardless of the benefits of one or the other the issue that still remains is the clarity of the information perceived by the individual.
Can human beings see the world as it actually is?  And if we can is it the same world for all of us?  I fear if it isn't than we have no chance.  But if it is the same what role does an emotional or intellectual process play other than to distort?  Why is a process necessary at all between perception and action?

It is an attention-grabbing title but Paul Bloom is clearly not “Against empathy.”
As best I can work out, he is (sometimes) against (among other things) empathy in the very narrow sense of ‘feeling with’ someone else: feeling sad because of their apparent sadness, happy because of their apparent happiness, etc. Although he equates this with “emotional empathy”, the phenomenon he is concerned with clearly has cognitive and physiological aspects. He allows that one can ‘share’ the imagined experience of fictional characters. He includes pain among the “emotions” people can feel with others.
Bloom is not at all consistent in how he refers to empathy. He seems frustrated when some of his commentators champion other forms of empathy such as trying to imagine others’ thoughts, feelings, preferences, and goals. He implies that only a fool would be against “cognitive empathy”, “social intelligence” and the like. He states that understanding others is either morally neutral (in his reply to commentators) or can be a good thing (in this target article).
So, Bloom is against people having experiences that in some sense mirror the imagined experiences of others. Why? Apparently mainly because it is “a poor guide to social policy.” He veers between weak and strong versions of this argument.
The weak argument is that ‘feeling with’ others is not an adequate tool to use as an exclusive guide for social policy. Does anyone seriously think otherwise? It is hard to imagine that an essay titled, “Against fellow-feeling as an exclusive guide to social policy” would attract much opposition. Or interest.
The strong argument is that ‘feeling-with’ others is always something to be “against” when forming or implementing social policy. The “when” is important. Some of Bloom’s commentators are aware that fellow-feeling may be a helpful or even a necessary step for the development of more sophisticated forms of empathy (perspective taking, shared understanding, compassion, etc.) but Bloom’s point is that ‘feeling with’ others has no place during policy making and implementation. He draws upon a medical analogy. We want health care professionals to have developed other-understanding and other-concern but we usually do not want them to cry every time we cry or wince and scream whenever we are in pain. Similarly, we want Nazis and all manner of other harm-doers to recognise and care when they are causing other-suffering. We do not need policy makers to feel the same pain as those they affect while they are making and implementing their policy. We merely want them to be aware of when their polcies are likely to harm others and to think that this is a relevant consideration. We want them to know that, while perhaps not always a decisive one, dead babies are an argument.
So Bloom may be “against policy makers feeling a reflection of every real or imagined experience of anyone they have an impact upon”. Again, it is difficult to imagine too many people feeling moved enough to want to challenge him on that.
But empathy of this restricted sort in this particular circumstance is not the only thing that Bloom is against.
Bloom is against ‘feeling with’ in social policy because it can introduce bias and cloud decision making. He is presumably (contextually) “against” everything else that can do such things, too: excessive anger, despair, parochialism, venality, schadenfreude, drunkenness, and sloppy argumentation. There is nothing special about "empathy" here. But again, prejudices and other foolishness aside, who is likely to take issue with this?
I really like a lot of Bloom’s work and he seems to be a nice guy. But this is an appalling essay. Bloom knows that “empathy” is a vague term and that many uses of it refer to processes and experiences that are highly valuable in multiple ways. By using the term imprecisely and inconsistently – but contentiously - he is fuelling an academic non-debate of the worst sort, where people who have little obvious real disagreement talk past each other and confusion reigns to no good effect. It is hard to imagine how this makes a positive contribution to anything, perhaps especially social policy. 

Translated: some things, like calling people racist, redistributing their wealth, or using emotion as a basis for social policy, are so ingrained in the public psyche, for Bloom to question this is a kind of intellectual treason. Don't mess with the mechanisms (political and psychological) that are set up in order to rule.
We have always been at war with Eastasia. And, damnit, I feel badly for the victims of Eastasia. 

The author makes the point that women generally have more empathy than men. And why is that? It's because natural selection selected females who took the best care of their offspring. If "distanced sympathy" made people more effective at taking care of others, then evolution would have produced women are feel "distanced but sympathetic" rather than empathetic.

It could just be my shirt-tail-ally feminist reflexes coming to the fore, but I can't help overhearing this in the subtext:
1.  Women are prone to it, so
2.  It's gotta be bad.
But that's JMO.

In my experience, there is an increasingly disturbing trend for people declaring themselves feminist or some
variation thereof to say remarkably reactionary and clueless things. You comment sadly, is a case in point.
1. Poster makes (roughly) the following argument:
Premise 1: Women have been shaped by evolution to be effective carers.
Premise 2: Women show a bias towards being more empathetic, not more sympathetic.
Conclusion: Evolution favors empathy over sympathy in preferencial carer traits, therefore empathy is
integral to caring/empathy.

This argument is essentially saying that women are excellent at something to the point that we
should accept <i>prima facie</i> that such relevent traits as women display are definately positive for that thing
women are excellent at.
From this you somehow derive the very opposite interpretation. Some kind of denegration of women. 
Recations like yours make it tedious to discuss any subject in which gender/sex differences may be relevent.  
Also, closing your comment with "but that's JMO". Not entirely sure what work this statement is supposed to do. 
You may take it as understood without any need to be explained. When you start offering other people's opinions;
that is the time to add an explanitory note.

Like some other readers, I wonder about definitions of terms and complexity of emotions. For example, is empathy really empathy if it is conditional? I have a friend who has true empathy for white people, but seemingly none for black people. When a white child was struck by a car and killed in our town she mourned for that boy and advocated publicly for a change in the way the intersection was constructed. When a black child was killed she smirked and said "I wonder what he was doing out so late." 

I am by nature more emotionally empathic than not. Making others feel good by being an empathic listener leads me to altruism.
I will admit that happy compassion sounds great. The Buddhist meditators have worked hard to be compassinate and not becong 'burned' out by emotional but cognitive empathy. This sounds like weird word play to me. Take Hannah. She for all we know has another side when she enjoys life and is not a relationship junkie. I would not know and I am suggesting you would not either.
As for myself who is seen as unusually generous by many which comes from a mixture of respect and kindness. Unto itself that feels like a primary identity. But I also spend a lot of time writing, reading or occasionally re-watching the greatest movies, not thinking of others but in a kind of rich hibernation. I have never experienced personal burn out with others because if someone exhausts me my cognitive response is to remove myself.
What I am trying to say is that empathy with others and taking actions to help friends or strangers in a jam gives me a pleasure that purely enriches my life, makes it feel bigger. This does not suggest that i'm on it anything  like 24/7. When working on a project say: writing stories, essays or the hard work of making a book, i am quite ruthless with my time, because it is my own time.
When in social situations, I am fun and then I can be pulled into an empathic mirroring that in fact almost always leads to altruistic actions. I am using myself only because i am my best test subject and though I understand your point it seems rather a matter of disposition.
You are male and enjoy these distinctions which some here get; others do not. As a woman I have had a great deal of love in my life as well as a great deal of eduation. Maybe my sadness at Gazan's plight is patholgical but then the Mideast is my beat and frankly the deficit of empathy and kindness towards the Other has to be a very bad thing. Talking in cirles. It is late in Jerusalem but you can have all the cognitive compassion you and others can muster.
I am not sorry in the least that i was born with empathy for others; it's like reading a great novel, you live more deeply. So I believe.

I read Mr. Bloom's similar, earlier article in the New Yorker on this same subject, and while I agree with him idea-wise, I'm not sure I agree semantically. If we define empathy as a raw sort of feeling of the pain and/or joy of others, then of course this has nothing, necessarily, to do with genuine compassion, which is concerned not with the feelings of others, which we can only ever pretend to know, but with the common good.
But is this affective experience of the other's pain the only possible sense of the word "empathy"? I think when a lot of people use this word they mean precisely a recognition of the common good--to put it negatively, the recognition that what hurts you hurts me. This type of empathy, which seems in line with the author's preferred term, compassion, is an intellectual recognition of our mutual responsibility toward one another, not an affective keening for a suffering we can only pretend to comprehend--that would be a sentimental, false sort of empathy. 
But Mr. Bloom doesn't bother to make this distinction in usage, and he ends up sounding much more provocative and contrarian than he's really being. I don't think any sensible person believes that the passive act of "feeling the pain of others" like some kind of corny psychic has any true value, or constitutes true empathy. All he's really doing is arguing against phoniness and sentimentality, which is good, but the way he frames his argument is, I believe, both misguided and misleading.

Just an initial note about this debate. I hope to add more later.
I come from a position that we need to build a global Culture of Empathy. This is, we need to make empathy a primary social value in the world. From experience, I've seen that it is the primary value that can bridge all the many divides we have in the world and foster creative growth. With this vision in mind, I founded the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy, which has an extensive website and resource for fostering empathy in the world. 
I try to reach out to all sides; democrats, republicans, conservatives, progressives, academics, artists, homeless, different ethnicities, religions, etc, etc. you name it.  I really enjoy empathizing with people who are against empathy. I find it's important to listen to and hear what their concerns, real values and needs are.
In an effort to empathize more deeply with Paul. I've repeatedly invited Paul to take part in an online empathy circle to use more empathic processes to hold this dialog. He keeps declining. For me, it's a bit of a dilemma about what to do when I want to more deeply listen to, hear and empathize with people and they decline. If feels disconnecting and alienating to me. Paul says he is too busy, so I imagine he has a need for effectiveness and taking part in an empathy circle doesn't address that.  But I'm not sure. I enjoy connection and personal growth. Empathic dialog helps support that for me.
Talk to Me
So, I will again extend an invitation to Paul and the other participants here to take part in an online Google Hangouts empathy circle to more directly dialog about the issues raised here. How about we try using more empathic means than a debate which is competitive by design?  From my experience, empathy is more like creative dance. We can sit on the sidelines and judge, analyze, criticize and debate the dance, or we can get up and dance and explore it experientially. I invite you to get up and dance, it's a different way of knowing.
Also, after reading Paul's previous  'Against Empathy' article in the New Yorker, I did an extensive series of video interviews and dialogs regarding the points raised. You can see the full series of 20+ interviews here.
Benefits of Empathy:  "IT FEELS DAMN GOOD!"
A final thought, The main topic here is; 
 "Most people see the benefits of empathy as too obvious to require justification. This is a mistake."

 I'm also very interested in the benefits of empathy. I started putting together a systematic resource for this.  It's still in a very rough stage, but I'll post a link to it here. Backing up each of the benefits of empathy anecdotally, experientially and scientifically, is certainly supportive to do and is on my To Do list.
Here are a few of the benefits listed.
"When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good. . . . When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on. It is astonishing how elements which seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens. How confusions which seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard." 
Carl Rogers
"increased cooperation and care in conflict situations, including conflict in bargaining and negotiations, ethnic, religious, and political conflicts, and racial conflicts in educational settings;" 
 Benefits of Empathy-Induced Altruism, C. Daniel  Batson
"I believe I know why it is satisfying to me to hear someone. When I can really hear someone, it puts me in touch with him; it enriches my life. It is through hearing people that I have learned all that I know about individuals, about personality, about interpersonal relationships."  
Carl Rogers
"Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, political deadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with a neighbor."
Simon Baron-Cohen

"Empathically accurate perceivers are those who are consistently good at 'reading' other people's thoughts and feelings. All else being equal, they are likely to be the most tactful advisors, the most diplomatic officials, the most effective negotiators, the most electable politicians, the most productive salespersons, the most successful teachers, and the most insightful therapists."
William John Ickes
"But when someone understands how it feels and seems to be ME, without wanting to analyze me or judge me, then I can blossom and grow in that climate. And research bears out this common observation. When the therapist can grasp the moment-to-moment experiencing which occurs in the inner world of the client as the client sees it and feels it, without losing the separateness of his own identity in this empathic process, then change is likely to occur."
Carl Rogers  
More to come.
Edwin Rutsch
Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

Good to see you, heart-friend, Edwin, doing the dance of empathic understanding rather than adding to the word games. My heart warms. Smiling, Marilee

The idea that one cannot read the emotions of others without language is no reason to think it the only social context for its communication... Spartan society was built on the virtues oF silence, and a kind of empathetic restraint.
I suggest that, short of anthropopathetic concerns (like intellectually empathic doe), intellectual empathy is akin to Jaak Parksnepp's primal empathy. These being perceptually based (with empathy "Care" further than empathy "Play" and then more from "Hunger") the mental states of sympathy or compassion refer to less medial attributes of emotional empathy. I would stress more distal attributes invoked in the less vocal care of social order and proximal attributes may identify the neural correlate or engram for " Fear" or "Rage".

I love the line "empathy is always perched between gift and invasion".    I feel like certain hyper-empathetic people in my life are so overly sensitive that when I feel distressed or anything, they will do literally anything to "help" in order to shut me down (and get offended when I refuse their misguided and personally motivated attempts to "help").   They make me feel more like an oil spill than a person.    

Fascinating and important article. I don't think the title is fair, since Bloom is not against empathy, but rather wants empathy to be more clearly defined, informed by facts, and differentiated from emotional contagion. And I think he's correct in noting that when we are frightened, what feels best is for our companions to be calm - while compassionately ("empathically") acknowledging our fear. (perhaps the most empathy is not emotional contagion but accurately sensing what the other person wants.) Perhaps Bloom has used his own capacity for empathy to realize that his provocative title will get more people to read the article .

I am wondering what the relationship is between compassion and emotional empathy.  Can a person feel compassion for people who are suffering without also feeling a (high) degree of emotional empathy about a real or imagined person's suffering?  
Also, I am wondering about the role of imagination in the processes of emotional empathy and compassion.  They both would seem to demand an imaginative engagement.  
Instead of seeing compassion and emotional empathy as operating as distinct and potentially opposite processes, I would want to hear how they could be theorized as operating as complimentary forces, driven by imagination, in the service of socially just policies and practices.
Compassion without empathy seems to lack a lever of emotional depth and connectedness whereas empathy without compassion seems to risk a kind of social paralysis through the individuation of social problems.
Just a thought.

I would suggest that compassion is not separate to empathy at all, it is the follow-on from empathy when the empathy has the effect of leading to action. It is true you can be empathetic without being compassionate - for example someone who is too overcome by emotion to be able to offer assistance in a time of need - but I do not think you can be compassionate without being empathetic to some degree. Somebody who helps out in a disaster spot while feeling nothing for the victims is not only not being empathetic, they are not being compassionate either - they are "merely" being charitable. Just because someone is charitable or altruistic does not necessarily mean they are compassionate. They may be helping out for selfish reasons - eg. an aid worker getting paid, to boost their social status, etc. - 
What the author is calling "compassion" in this article I think is just a more useful version of empathy - an empathetic response tempered by reason to become a productive outcome. When somebody helps us when we are down, we make value judgments about why they are helping us. If they are only doing it because they have reasoned it is socially useful or will boost their image - ie. if they are just being charitable with no emotional investment - we will resent them even if they are offering practical assistance. If they have taken the time to imagine what we are going through, to empathise, we respect their assistance more. 

We cannot really enter the minds of others, so much of what is often called empathy isn't really sharing the feeling of others but  imagining others to feel in ways that they may not be doing. So, empathy can really miss the mark. Suppose someone pleads for sympathy while really looking to manipulate others. In our dog-eat-dog world, it's always best to have your guard up. Those who call for 'empathy' are telling you to drop the guard and feel for others on faith. Oprah got rich off this shtick from suckers.
Also, let's not confuse empathy with sympathy. We need to feel sympathy for the downtrodden, unfortunate, or oppressed. 
But empathy is of a different order. It's about trying to understand how others feel, think, see the world, and etc. Empathy is amoral. It requires us to rationally understand serial killers too. So, when we empathize, we need to check our emotions. If we don't and empathize too closely with evil people, we might end up sympathizing with them too. Notice how movies make us empathize with criminals and even root for them. 

When i'm empathizing with another it will occasionally bring about some negative feelings in myself.  If I dwell on these feelings it often times can result in my own anger and frustration. This is clearly brought upon by my own confusion and lack of understanding in being able to truly identify with anothers given situation. While the person who is being identified with, consoled,  and built up may or may not feel any better after talking with them, I can attest that engaging in disingenuious empathy can have adverse effects on the mind of the emathizer. Being compassionate and sympathetic while managing one's anger is the recipe for being a good communicatior in interpersonal relationships. Honest empathy or no empathy at all.
I enjoyed how you stated that "being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice. Being a bad person has more to do with a lack of regard for others and an inability to control one's appetites. 

I took this essay in quite deeply despite arguing wth Paul. Now the very next day I begin to see
the pitfalls of emotional empathyi did not notice nor know ever beore today.
Driving from Jerusalem to Ramallah with a new friend was a long ride to an amazingly deveoped
place. The man I was with is gifted with bounless energy, and yet I was feeling carsick.
At that precise moment, he began telling me one of the saddest stories ever heard and I sunk into his feelings which ironically he has by now overcome. Too much empathy wiped me out, was no good for him nor me. So now I see this essay as brilliant, the way it repeated in my mind today and i could see
that my empathy sometimes helps no one.Thank you!

Interesting article. Too long maybe but I take it that this sentence was a good summary: "Being a good person likely is more related to distanced feelings of compassion and kindness, along with intelligence, self-control, and a sense of justice" -- Although I would emphasize something here.


First of all we could easily make a link with, say, Ayn Rand here, or more in general with what's sometimes called "enlightened selfishness". The latter term is not often used by the way, "enlightened self-interest" would be more the Ayn Rand kind of thing but I like the slightly stronger word "selfishness" here, because it is a good thing to see and understand our paradoxes clearly. Paradoxes are the hallmark of humanity after all.


What I would like to emphasize is an old argument by Hannah Arendt, who said that all actions of human beings are essentially unpredictable and irreversible - we can never be sure of their results, and not be sure if we can undo the results. However, so she argues, in stead of being paralyzed by fear for acting, under such harsh conditions of reality, we have developed certain means to deal with these problems.


To put it in my own words, she argued as follows: to solve the problem of mistakes that cause harm to others, victims have the ability to apply forgiveness. And to solve the uncertainty connected to all action, we have something too, it's called "making promises". So whatever goes wrong, we promise we will try to make things well anyway - if not the way we thought, then we compensate in another way. And in case we really can't (entirely) do as promised, the 'victim' of a (half-broken) promise may understand we did what we could, an accept our honest appology, and forgive.


Those are paradoxes, but they work. We invented these because we learned over time how to deal with paradoxes in a way which allows us to live life to the best of our ability. And I think what she said is true, and in fact it boils down to understanding those things and also accept them as a 'deal' - a way for human beings to live socially in such a way we won't shoot each other after a while. Those things should become 'habits', or 'rites' if you like it in more Budhist terms - or 'discipline' of you like it in Foucault's language. I call it a deal. If you can't forgive, how would you expect others to forgive you when YOU make a mistake? (Important reminder: everyone makes mistakes). If you don't keep your promises, why would others keep theirs? (Reminder: you will always be facing situations where you have to trust someone).


So the real problem is when we don't understand a deal. In the context of this article, the deal is that a person's suffering or misery deserves to be treated - which means compassion should be applied. I would argue that empathy - whatever it is - is not really the problem. Call it a bonus. I'm not really against it, I think I'd be more careful with such assessments. But I do agree that empathy offers no guarantee, because indeed much of our empathy is affective and therefore not very predictable. Compassion is more like the 'promise' in Hannah Arendt's argument: that's the deal. It should be hard-wired in our minds if we were all properly educated by the greatest lessons learned from the greatest wisdom teachers of the past: when you see a need, when you see your Samaritan laying along the road, bleeding and suffering, don't be a jerk - it could be you laying there. You may desire to be selfish, okay - but wait a minute: we have a deal with society. Do what you would want others to do to you when you are in need.


Golden rule, silver rule - whatever it's called - if you can't do it because of empathy, do it because compassion is a social contract in societies that want to be 'humane'. Consider it a 'done deal'. No discussion, no falling back upon selfishness in those cases - there's someone in need, show compassion. Period.

I believe the author of this article is one of those blessed individuals that has never been touched by a undesirable life changing event. That he has never laid in a hospital bed in intense pain waiting for someone to empathize with him, or was never at the end of his rope and longing to return home to the unconditional love in the eyes of their spouse or parent to reassure them. Need I go on? Those who have not suffered themselves, could be the only possible people to not understand these qualities. These are qualities born from experience not intellectual analysis. Aren’t we all indebted to the qualities of empathy, compassion and mercy. From our spouse in their forgiving, our friends and their support, our doctor in his caring, our employer in their understanding, our college professor in his grading, the tax man in their mercy, our legal system in their judging, society in its fairness. I’m guessing this article was written with the intention to promote thinking (which is awesome), I’m also hoping it’s not a sign of the state of academia in the west.- Tenzin Tharpa, American Buddhist monk, South India.

introduces argument with "But consider what it must be like to be her."

Insofar as I can judge my own degree of empathy, I feel the most towards fictional characters when reading a book or watching a film.  I suppose my emotions are being cleverly manipulated by the author/actor.  It seems stupid, not to say unethical, to care more about a fictional character than about someone who is alive and suffering in, say, Syria.  But maybe that is not the point.  What IS the point is that it would be stupid/unethical to base a moral policy on how much empathy I happen to feel towards this or that person.

The requirement that one have the right sort of empathy is a manipulative technique.  One may/must have emphathy for a member of an accredited victim group.  But not for, say, a bitter clinger.

Good point.  There is a sort of Empathy Olympics which goes on in politics, in which one side claims the moral high ground because they more DIRECTLY address the suffering of others.
Left out of the equation is any notion that those who are suffering may bear any responsibility for what has "befallen" them.  IOW, there is a contingent which loves to rescue people.  They never stop to think that maybe this fact increases the expectations of those who get rescued, so that the problem is never really addressed.

The claim that two kinds of empathy can be distinguished is a basic flaw of this analysis.
There is absolutely no way to "walk in someone else's shoes" in any significant way without at the same time assessing their thoughts and motivations and beliefs.
What you offer as "emotional empathy" appears to be either an incomplete form of cognitive empathy - one that considers only pain, and nothing else about the subject - or cognitive empathy engaged in by an idiot - in other words, cognitive empathy that fails to see the important elements of another person's experience and therefore fails to perform even rudimentary moral judgment.
When I am faced with someone who is demanding my assistance, the full exercise of cognitive empathy is necessary before I can properly determine whether they deserve it.  A very shallow sort of empathy might step into the other person's shoes just enough to say, "Awwwwwwwww...this is sad."  But what possible good is that?  And how could that possibly be moral?  People who are punished for crimes suffer, too.  Analyzing only their suffering would tell us that we should not punish them.
And when you do fully step into another person's experience - realizing not only their pain, but the full range of their thoughts, motivations, and beliefs - you will generally find (at least when dealing with adults) that they're a pretty shabby lot, and deserve very little assistance at all.  Especially if you fully transpose yourself into "their shoes" and think, "If I was literally in their position, what would I be thinking and feeling?"  Altruism and empathy are regarded as synonyms only because most people don't actually do that (and thus, don't really experience the empathy they claim that they do).


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