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I am in broad sympathy with Paul Bloom’s consequentialist leanings, as I am with what I take to be his basic concern: that people are unable to process and act upon information that is not proximate, visible, and viscerally compelling. But I am not convinced that emotional empathy is the culprit.
At some points, Bloom seems to be using emotional empathy as a label for all instances of fellow-feeling gone awry: a desperate need to be needed, codependence, overwrought emotions that cloud judgment. Most emotions carried to extremes turn pathological. If we dial back empathy from Level 6 to Level 5 on Baron-Cohen’s scale, does emotional empathy—a bad thing in Bloom’s book—turn into compassion—a good thing? If so, this is not an argument against empathy; it is an argument against taking it to extremes or in pathological directions.
At other times, Bloom seems to equate emotional empathy with a hyper-focus on the near, the visible, the psychologically salient—an irrationality that needn’t involve fellow feeling of any sort.
Whatever the term means to Bloom, it plays very different roles in personal relationships and the social policy sphere. I will confine my remarks to the latter, in particular private philanthropy and public policy.
Broad-based charitable organizations, such as Oxfam and the Red Cross, which must rely on donations from the public, have largely surrendered to the emotional appeal of a charismatic victim. Is this a problem? Giving only to salient victims may be irrational from a consequentialist perspective, but the gift itself is unlikely to do more harm than good. Yet it would nonetheless be problematic if it were crowding out more effective responses to others’ needs. I doubt that is the case, though. If people who give only to charismatic victims were suddenly persuaded that their behavior is irrational, they would be unlikely to switch to a more rational strategy. Most would simply stop giving. Indeed, rather than crowding out other forms of charity, giving to charismatic victims may well have the opposite effect, operating as a gateway drug, as it were, to more broad-based giving.
Myopia in policymaking is a different matter. Given budget constraints and limitless demands on services, every dollar the government allocates to one purpose necessarily crowds out a dollar that could have been devoted to another. In making those tradeoffs, fixation on proximate and emotionally salient consequences has proved catastrophic in at least two respects.
First, we massively under-invest in prevention relative to treatment because there are no visible harms to spur us to action until disaster comes to pass. The levees that keep New Orleans from flooding are desperately in need of repair? So you say, Army Corps of Engineers. I live in New Orleans, and the city is dry as dust. The earth is warming? That is what you say, climate scientists. In Wisconsin, we just had the coldest winter in the last five years.
Second, when harms do occur, we over-invest in fixing the ones that are salient to us—as determined, often, by the media and politicians with an interest in manipulating our priorities—and under-invest in those that are not.
Evidence of this hyper-focus on proximate, psychologically salient problems—amid indifference to the rest—is everywhere. Consider health care. When President Obama was accused of setting up “death panels,” his aides jumped into action, denouncing the charge as false, which, of course, it was. But what no one in the Obama camp could say, although each of them knew it to be true, is that, whatever system we adopt, we will be rationing health care. The only question is whether we will do so covertly or overtly, rationally or irrationally.
This much I imagine Bloom would agree with. But the myopia at work in the public sphere frequently has nothing to do with empathy of any sort. Most voters are motivated primarily by self-interest, not altruism, and the myopia that leads them astray is not moral but cognitive. In pursuing their own self-interest, people ignore facts that are not immediately and viscerally available to them and disregard the standard inputs and tools of rational decision making: large data sets, reliable statistical methods, long-term consequences, uncertainty, etc.
Gut feeling may well have a constructive role to play in the policy sphere, particularly when we think the tools of rational decision making are unreliable. But until people learn to think more systematically and globally about the consequences of different courses of action—even just the consequences to them—we will keep investing in the wrong policies, given most citizens’ preferences. The solution to this problem is not less empathy; it is more rationality.
Barbara H. Fried, William W. and Gertrude H. Saunders Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, is author of The Progressive Assault on Laissez Faire: Robert Hale and the First Law and Economics Movement. She is also a member of the board of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University.
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