Against Empathy: The case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom

July 20th 2017

Reading other customer reviews on Paul Bloom’s ‘Against Empathy’ broadly I have to agree with the consensus that his central point is both obvious and can be summed up in just a few lines. Indeed, as with books such as Robert I Simon’s ‘Bad Men Do What Good Men Think’, just reading the title could save you the cost of the book. But this is unfair. One of the measures of a good book for me is how much I find myself discussing it with my long-suffering wife over breakfast. By this standard Bloom’s book is a belter. Whilst the central point may be obvious, what others have described as his ‘ramblings’ for me were page after page of stimulating ideas. Granted not always  on message (after all, the message is pretty concise) and, for a UK audience at least, his frequent unguarded ‘attacks’ on academic colleagues making for slightly uncomfortable reading. Nevertheless, there’s a wealth of ideas here and its precisely Bloom’s slightly dogmatic style that gets the debate going. Accepting that this is Bloom’s very personal view is important, getting over this allows you to enjoy a well thought out and well-argued case. If you take nothing else away, it cannot be denied that empathy is no basis for morality.

I dropped my review from five to four stars [on Amazon] for what I believe is a glaring omission to the argument; namely reciprocity. I kept turning the pages expecting to find some mention of this vital ingredient of human social behaviour persuasively argued in Matt Ridley’s book ‘The Origin of Virtue’. Although Bloom does tantalising touch on the social angle, any book that argues about empathy – whether for or against – without touching on reciprocity is diminished in its worth and here’s why. Our empathetic responses might go some way to explain why we might help an elderly stranger across the street. However, if we accept Bloom’s argument that our empathy is acutely focused on those that are immediately relevant to us – a force that ripples out from family, to neighbours, to fellow citizens at which point, for the most part, it loses its potency – then exactly why do we help the elderly stranger without any immediate expectation of reward? Citing empathy doesn’t really help us here and in a book that’s against empathy, failing to mention that so much of our moral behaviour is driven by a hard-wired instinct for future reward within the social group, seems odd.

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Martin Roberts

Martin Roberts is the founder of TTSLP.

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