How should we live our lives? We should try to do things that make sense, that are fair and just, and are not governed by emotions. How good are we at it? Well, often we’re not very good at all. But the very fact that we can make this judgement implies that we have the capacity to do better – says Paul Bloom, a Canadian psychologist from Yale, whose most recent book Against Empathy caused quite a stir.
There’s nothing more inspiring and invigorating than an idea that goes against the grain of common sense – provided that it is well argued. Such ideas used to be a domain of philosophers. Take any book on the history of philosophy and you’ll find a flamboyant conga line of outsiders, eccentrics and iconoclasts, stretching for 2500 years. They all had the courage to “think against themselves”, to use the phrase of one of them, eminent 20th century French essayist of Romanian origins Emil Cioran.
Nowadays scientists too are joining this conga line. Some are quantum physicists who study a reality completely different than the one to which our senses are accustomed. Some are evolutionary biologists, discovering strictly natural bases for many lofty ideas. Some are psychologists who are taking apart many of our convictions about the internal life of Homo sapiens.
One of the most interesting representatives of the last of the aforementioned groups is Paul Bloom, a Canadian psychologist from Yale University. Every book he publishes is an event. Bloom is an expert in controversies, and at the same time a bona fide academic who strictly follows the rules of science. He gained fame a couple of years ago when he proved that morality and ethics are mostly primal, despite what many philosophers and priests think. According to Bloom’s research, even toddlers follow some moral instincts.
In 2016, Bloom published a follow-up, the provocatively titled book Against Empathy. In it he argues that – contrary to what many neuroscientists or psychologists, such as Simon Baron-Cohen, think – nothing good comes from empathy. According to Bloom, we shouldn’t be asking for more of it. Quite the opposite. If we want to live in a liberal democracy built around such values as freedom, equality, empowerment, tolerance and diversity, we should be curtailing empathy and instead developing rational compassion. Empathy – the capacity for feeling whatever other people are feeling – revolves around our bias to favour those who are like us and think like us. It is mainly directed towards our family and tribe; therefore, we not only stop caring about everyone else, but also begin treating them as enemies. And then violence becomes a real possibility.
Sounds like a provocation? A controversial, radical, imaginative claim? Of course. But it is very painstakingly argued. That’s why Bloom’s books make for such a terrific read, even if you want to argue with him all the way – as you’ll surely find out in this interview.
Tomasz Stawiszyński: Is it possible to love all humankind?
Paul Bloom: Maybe it’s possible for a saint or a god, if you believe in one, of course. But however we define love, you can’t love all humankind. We love particular people, we love our children, friends and partners. We can’t love billions of individuals.
The idea of all-embracing love is, however, deeply embedded in our culture. What is the source of its strength?
I don’t know. Maybe the model of the saints, Jesus Christ and people who gave religious injunctions to not only love thy neighbour, but also love thy enemy. Anyway, I think it’s not realistic. I don’t have to love you in order to treat you fairly and with decency, honour and justice; to support you or help you. After all, I don’t even know you! To say that I should feel towards you the same as I feel towards my sons is bizarrely unrealistic. But the good news is that we don’t have to love people in order to treat them kindly. It is enough to have a sense of right and wrong, a sense of justice, an appreciation of the value of other people. It’s absurd to demand all-encompassing love, and we’d better not even try.
In your book Against Empathy you have set empathy – of which you are definitely critical – against compassion. How do they relate to love?
Well, I could easily explain the difference between compassion and empathy. To feel empathy means to feel that your concerns are my own, whereas compassion does not require that. For example, if you were very anxious and I feel empathy for you, I too will become anxious. But if I simply feel compassion, I might care about you without being anxious myself. Compassion just means to care about someone else. I don’t want to get caught up in terminology, but if we reserve the term ‘love’ for people we really feel this powerful connection with – our children, our lovers, our partners, in other words, those whose lives matters to you as much as your own life does – then that leaves out all other people. I feel compassion towards people who are in an earthquake, but I don’t love them.
Can you feel compassion towards all humankind? In your book, you mentioned Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who was a subject in experiments with fMRI, which showed some very specific processes occurring in his brain during his meditations on all-embracing compassion. Do you think it was about compassion defined as caring for other people, or maybe about some other abstract idea, akin to all-encompassing love?
I think that’s a nice way of putting it. When I met Matthieu Ricard, he told me – and I’m not sure if this is still true – that he spends half of each year in total solitude, and loves it. I find it very admirable, but I myself couldn’t do that because of the people I love. I want to be part of their lives, I worry about them, I want to help them out. Maybe Ricard can spend so much time in solitude because he doesn’t have the sort of relationships that I associate with love. And because for him compassion is something more abstract and more intellectual.
How does this attitude influence our actions in the real word? How does it influence political engagement, focused on bringing a change in the status quo, but also morality, which is perhaps one of the most fundamental motivating factors?
Imagine someone who spends their life in meditation and in solitude. Such a person would not be making the world a better place. They would be making themselves better and perhaps aspiring to certain spiritual values. I think that someone like Bill Gates, who is a billionaire philanthropist, does so much more, even though I doubt he’s a Buddhist monk. He just does so much more by being engaged in the world.
Our morality leads us to get involved in the world by seeing injustice and trying to stop it. If I see someone suffering, I might try to alleviate that suffering. At the same time, morality causes plenty of trouble. For example, I can get offended or demand that you be punished just because, in my opinion, you are worshipping a wrong god. A lot of our cruelty and our vileness is itself motivated by morality. Morality is not an unadulterated good.
Unlike a lot of thinkers, modern psychologists and popular writers, you see empathy not as something that helps to make the world a better place, but as a dangerous thing. It seems paradoxical.
It does. I think one reason why it seems paradoxical is that empathy seems so well-meaning. I feel so good when my empathy drives me to help you. But it has all of these other problems. It’s biased and short-sighted. If you really want to make the world a better place, following your empathic urges is not the way to do it. Quite the opposite. Take a very simple example: if you feel empathy –in an immediate sense – towards your child, you won’t get them vaccinated or take them to a doctor, because you don’t want to cause them any pain. That’s different from love. Love says: I want to cause my kid pain because it’s in their long-term interest. Empathy often motivates interventions and actions that feel great in the short-term, but make the world worse in the long-term. Empathy is a human capacity that hasn’t evolved to make things better in the long run – it has evolved for certain very narrow gains.
According to you, empathy goes against the values that are now important to us, like tolerance, openness and equality. Is your critique of empathy therefore based on a claim that evolution did not predict the modern world – liberal democracy, technological progress, the internet, globalization, and so on? That we are maybe designed for completely different circumstances, like living in small tribes, not in modern societies, and that’s the cause of the problems with empathy?
I think so. A lot of people say to me: empathy has to do some good, otherwise it wouldn’t have evolved. But this claim has two weak points. First, the circumstances in which we now live are very different to the circumstances in which we evolved. And the second thing is that what’s good from an evolutionary standpoint always involves survival and reproduction, but what’s good from a moral standpoint can involve quite different goals than those. For both of these reasons, we can take an evolved capacity and say: well it doesn’t do us good, it’s not what we need.
Considering the complexity of human civilization, evolution probably didn’t prepare us for many challenges of the present day. What can we do about that?
It’s a good question. I think we can use our intelligence to create cultural norms and technological fixes. Take another case: we are by nature biased to care about people who are family, who look like us, who live close to us. But most of us, in our professions, aren’t supposed to show bias. At the university, when I hire somebody for a summer job, I’m not allowed to hire my son. And it would be wrong if I just hired people who look like me. Such rules, laws and procedures are there to help me to be my better self. Another example: we naturally want to take revenge on those who harm us, but society works through offloading justice to the authorities, and as a result it becomes more fair and more proportionate and we’re all better off. This is something that society does: it allows us to transcend our motivations.
But if you look at modern Western societies it seems that primal, natural tendencies are on the rise. Doesn’t the rhetoric of Donald Trump scare you? Barrack Obama, for his part, used to put great emphasis on the need for empathy.
I do think that Trump by his nature is neither very empathic nor very compassionate. On the other hand, I think he’s been very good at eliciting the empathy of others, particularly regarding fear of immigration and fear that their families and friends will be killed or uprooted by immigrants. So he has used empathy quite a lot, mostly to bad ends. More generally, I agree with people like Steven Pinker: in the grand scheme of time the world has been getting better, and a lot of this is through the exercise of reason. If you look at the bigger picture, the views we have now and the world we live in now are so much better than they were a hundred years ago. Of course, things don’t get better every day, and I agree with you that we’ve landed in bad times. These bad times that we’re in now are reflected in a fetishization of emotion and feeling. I liked Obama as a president because he was a very rational, reasonable person. Trump is not. You can go wrong with rationality, but it’s always better than just following your gut feelings.
It’s so rare nowadays to hear something like this from a psychologist. Modern psychology, especially the therapeutic tradition, is very much concentrated on emotions. Why do you think that is?
I think there are maybe two answers. First, our emotions feel authentic to ourselves. Reason is difficult and uncertain. But if I feel a strong anger towards somebody, or gratitude or shame, it feels true, undeniably true. And so it has always been a popular idea that our emotions will tell us the truth, and that we should listen to our hearts. The second thing is – and this is actually supported by research by some psychologists – that we have been wired up by nature to look for the expression of emotion in others when judging their characters. We’re looking for loyalty, trust and love from the people around us. If you’re my friend and I want you to help me, I don’t want you to get logical, rational, I don’t want a Peter Singer-like utilitarian. I want you to follow your heart and care about me and be loyal to me. If you’re in a romantic relationship, you want the person you’re with to tell you that they love you, that they pledge their heart to you. You don’t expect them to say: well, it’s in our mutual benefit to stay together for as long as this works.
So is it all about finding some sort of an Aristotelian harmony between emotions and reason?
You need some motivation to do things. If you’re strictly rational, you’re not motivated to do anything, you just calculate. This is why the sub-title of my book is ‘The Case for Rational Compassion’. Rationality is not enough, you must also care for other people.
That’s an important caveat – otherwise one could accuse you of dangerously totalitarian thinking, where the good of an individual is always secondary to some abstract ideal...
I haven’t heard it put quite that way. And also, I disagree. If you look at totalitarian regimes, their problem is not too much rationality or reason. They suffer from an abundance of feeling. Feeling, not rationality, is at the core of fascist movements. But it is true that to some extent I suggest that in order to be good, a person has to move away from any specific concerns as an individual and look towards broader consequences. That’s true of every morality. If you run around and you start beating people on the street and I tell you to stop, to some extent I’m taking away your right; I’m taking away what you enjoy doing. But how could we live otherwise? This doesn’t make me a communist or a fascist, it’s just that every moral system involves some sort of balance between pleasing different people. It’s hard to imagine what the alternative would be.
However, in Dialectic of Enlightenment Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer claimed that the Nazi machine was built according to rational principles and can be viewed as an ultimate consequence of laying too much hope in human reason.
It seems so backwards. When I think about Hitler, I don’t think: Oh my god, that’s such an epitome of rationality, of careful reason, logic and science and principles. Hitler was all about insanity, emotional fervour, and mysticism. If you want to see rationality, look at the United Nations, look at the EU. Of course humility as to what we can do is important, but that’s not antithetical to rationality. Rationality, when done properly, acknowledges uncertainties. If I thought I knew a way to solve all the world’s problems and tried to brutally impose my solutions, that wouldn’t be rational. That would just be hubristic. Being truly rational involves a sort of conservatism, where you say: we have to be careful when messing around with things because we just don’t know what the result may be. Economists are the most rational animals, and they’re talking all the time about unintended consequences.
So being rational is being aware that we are not 100% rational?
Yes. And even if we are 100% rational, there are always uncertainties, simply because we’re limited creatures. I can be a rational poker player and the exact right thing would be to put all my money down on a bet, but I could still lose because the cards go the other way. I could choose the right way to drive to work today, but a meteor could fall on my car. That doesn’t mean I was stupid, it just means that some things are out of my control. And certainly when dealing with societal issues, I think some humility is in order. In the end, if you look for humility, I think you find more of it among people who are sort of rational planners than you do among people who are ruled by their emotions. What do the people of the Frankfurt School propose as an alternative? What should we do instead? Listen to our hearts?
No, I don’t think so. They were saying that we should be very careful about this idea of human beings as rational beings and about reason as basis for society.
Well, there are two issues here that need to be separated. One is normative: how should we live our lives? Almost by definition we should try to do things that make sense, that are sort of fair and just and not governed by emotions. The second issue is the one that you’re getting at now, which is the descriptive question: how good are we at it? Well, often we’re not very good at all. But the very fact that we can make this judgement implies that we have the capacity to be better. The cure for bad rationality is more rationality. Those philosophers who say that our rationality isn’t perfect – how do they know? The answer is: because they have their own rational skills that they apply to other people and say, oh, you’ve fallen short.
But, as you have said, we are by nature inclined towards bias and towards errors. The history of science is a gigantic, intergenerational effort to work out some methods of making sense of the world which go beyond subjective limitations. Therefore, we’re not so much rational beings, as beings who strive towards rationality through long, difficult training.
I agree with every word that you’re saying. And I think it’s a worthwhile project. It’s much easier to be racist than to not be racist. Being racist is easy – just follow your inclinations. You like your friends, you like people who look like you. People of different skin colours, you don’t like them as much. That’s the easiest thing in the world. So to not be racist is fairly difficult, it involves going against your biases, setting out procedures, doing things that may not feel right. But the hope is that ultimately it becomes easier if you have the support of other people and institutions. I wrote the book in part to encourage people to try, but I would have never said it was easy.
One might ask why we would transcend our inclinations? Scottish philosopher David Hume, one of the Enlightenment’s architects, taught us that we can’t derive values from facts. In other words, our moral obligations do not come from the world being what it is.
I agree. As a psychologist, you can hopefully accumulate ideas about how the world works and how the mind works, but none of those tell you how to live your life. You can’t get from one to the other. But on the other hand, I think that there are moral intuitions that we all have, which are really universal, and I think we can take them as starting premises. At the beginning of Against Empathy, I state my assumption that it is a good thing to make the world better, to make people happier and to take away suffering. If you don’t agree with me, I can’t have an argument with you; I can’t convince you.
Do you think those moral intuitions are natural in the sense that we mentioned earlier?
I think the origins are partially natural, in that we have an aversion to suffering and a desire for happiness and fulfilment. We extend this to people we love and care about. I don’t think there’s anybody who wants the people they love to suffer. But then you need another step. Steve Pinker talks about this, Peter Singer does too. The other step is to recognize that we can be impartial. If it’s good for me and my sons to be free of suffering, there’s no principled reason for me to deny that it’s good for you as well, and for those you love. If you can grant that, then you sort of have a moral framework to start with.
The history of humanity tells us that it’s not that easy for us. It is a history of wars, of violence and massacres. Only the last 50 years or so were relatively quiet.
It’s a difficult project.
What can we do to advance it?
I think we make a lot of moral progress, for instance, when we learn to distrust our actions of disgust. A lot of racial and sexual discrimination arises from feelings of disgust – disgust of seeing a black man and a white woman kiss, or two men holding hands. We make progress when we say to people who react in this way: okay, step back and ask yourself if this feeling is right. The same is true for a lot of emotions, including empathy. It might feel so right to help the person close to me, but then we have to ask ourselves whether or not it is in fact morally just. The project of questioning our feelings, questioning our gut, is a very important one.
You mentioned sexual discrimination. Are we really witnessing linear progress? As for LGBT rights, both in Europe and America there is a wave of right-wing populism, bringing with it the return of homophobic language.
It sounds like you’re interested in psychoanalysis. One of the ideas that Freud had was that in times of crisis we often regress. I can imagine that happening to a society as a whole, but I predict that these moments of regression really are just regression, and that sooner or later we will come back to our original state. Things won’t be getting worse and worse and worse – that’s not what typically happens. Across time, just as with science, we build on the accomplishments of the past, which takes us in an upwards direction.
Psychoanalysis also tells us that there is a price to pay for repressing emotions. How to reconcile that with your call for rationality? Does the turn towards rationality mean that we will consciously repress emotions? Freud wouldn’t go for that.
I think it certainly starts as a conscious process where we learn to override things, where we learn to look at the numbers and look at the data. But in time it might become deeply embedded within us. When I was a boy, most Americans were against interracial marriage. Now the law’s changed and there are interracial couples all around. My feeling is that most people are not against them. That somehow this has been rewired and set up anew. It might take some time to learn to distrust empathy and to learn different methods of making our moral decisions, but we can get to a point where we won’t even feel the unconscious pull in the direction of empathy.
Did the process of writing the book and thinking about empathy change you?
I think it has. One reason I wrote the book is that I’m a very empathic person myself, and my concerns are very biased and emotional. I try to practice what I preach – in my charitable giving, in my interactions with other people. I try to be, with whatever success, more of a moral person and less of an emotional, empathic person. I’m not sure how much of a success it has been, but that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Introduction translated from the Polish by Jan Dzierzgowski