Paul Bloom, the noted Yale psychologist, wrote, in a 2013 New Yorker article and again in the most recent Boston Review forum, “Against Empathy.” We are urged to feel empathy in order to do good for others, but empathy is a poor guide to altruism. Empathy is “parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate,” Bloom writes. We empathize much more with people who resemble us in background, looks, or character (that is, people who seem moral and deserving just like we assume we are) than with people who are different, odd, or potentially at fault. Thus, the baby fallen in the well in the next town deserves moving heaven and earth to save her, while tens of thousands of starving, deformed refugees thousands of miles away—not so much. How can empathy’s discrimination be morally justified, Bloom asks. Isn’t there a better guide?

My small addition to the conversation is simply to note this oddity: Bloom and the BR commentators did not refer to the obvious guide, at least for Americans: organized religion. (In the New Yorker, Bloom refers only to “religious ideologies that promote cruelty” and the BR essays make passing nods to a vague Buddhism.) No one acknowledges that Americans’ historically most important guide to moral decisions, the Bible, might avoid the empathy paradox—or at least it might if Americans had not watered down its guidance with empathy.

Impulses v. Commands

Relying on empathy to motivate charity means that it is not enough that the needy are humans, but they must also be lucky, like the children who happened to live near a Google mogul and got needed dental treatment as a Christmas present; children living further away did not. The needy must also not be repulsive, but preferably be adorable. That is why relief organizations try to show individual, attractive victims who are suffering but not suffering so much as to turn viewers away (see this earlier post on “ugly” laws to bar the poor from city streets). The latest development to mobilize empathy for altruism is “a crowdfunding website for homeless people, where the needy can post photos, videos, tell their story, and request donations for the things that might help them take the next step.” So, the homeless who can best display their empathy-worthiness get personal help from the homelessness-kickstarter audience.

Feeling empathetic has nothing to do with it. Nor does the recipients’ deservingness. 

The Abrahamic tradition has a different approach to altruism. The New and Old Testaments largely command people who are comfortable to give to people who aren’t—unconditionally (discussed here). Feeling empathetic has nothing to do with it. Nor does the recipients’ deservingness. (Even the president’s spokesman goofed in attributing the Greek saying about helping “those who help themselves” to the Bible.) In this tradition, God wills, commands that we help those who need help, with no qualification tests. On a comparable subject, rendering justice in disputes, the Bible enjoins that “You shall not favor the wretched and you shall not defer to the rich” (Lev. 19:15; Alter trans.)—that is, a judge should not let empathy guide justice in either direction.

In reality, of course, even the religious usually fall short—by being stingy, favoring some of the needy over others, or being judgmental. Nonetheless the principle is clear and the principle is not empathy. It is an alternative Bloom and company did not discuss, overlooked perhaps because it has been watered down in recent generations.

The Empathy Choice

In the pre-modern western world, communities enforced the biblical injunctions to help the needy by strong pressure, tithing, and taxation. However insufficient and often neglected these means were and however much they were directed only inwardly to community members, altruism, whether willing or grudging, did not rely on empathy.

In early America, the rising culture of individualism and the rising ideology of the free market amended Christian charity. Increasingly, Americans expected the needy demonstrate their moral deservingness. Now, the ethos of twenty-first century America disdains any external commands, demands, or requirements on the individual. In this world view, one should help only when and who one is personally moved to help.

On the one hand, the modern world-views shared by the contributors to the BR discussion have spurred Americans to care about and to help people far beyond our communities. Contact with the wider world has made our sympathies increasingly cosmopolitan, embracing some of the needy around the globe. But the empathy or sympathy requirement has led, as Bloom points out, to all sorts of morally puzzling choices for performing altruism around the world.