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RS142 - Paul Bloom on "The case against empathy"

Release date: September 6, 2015

Paul Bloom"I'm writing a book on empathy," psychologist Paul Bloom tells people. They respond warmly, until he follows up with, "I'm against it." On this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia and Paul discuss what empathy is, why Paul is concerned that it's a terrible guide to moral decision making, and what the alternatives are.

Paul Bloom is a Canadian American professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world.

Paul's pick: Fredrik deBoer's blog, "Tapped Out," and "Hannibal."



Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (10)

So this was quite a long podcast that could be summarised that it is usually more effective to sympathise than empathise with others and that it is better to have sympathy and empathy than no sympathy or empathy in the world? I'd agree but that seems like a fairly simple idea and fairly self evident. Professions that require a good understanding of the way another person is feeling e.g social care, therapy, etc have always emphasised sympathy vs empathy in their training. This is true in direct application and is also broadly true in the thinking behind policies.

Is there something further to his argument that I missed or some follow on point that goes further with the concept?
September 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDirk
Is Bloom against the Golden Rule and any argument of the form, "How would you feel if this happened to you?"
I know people in the finders-keepers camp when it comes to returning lost items. But how would you feel if you lost your wallet?
As far as having greater empathy for your own kind, suppose you hear someone telling racist jokes about a different race. You could ask yourself how you'd feel if someone made racist jokes about your race.
September 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
There seems to be a mistake in that the uploaded podcast isn't Paul Bloom.

It was a great podcast regardless, but I'd like to hear Paul's interview as well. Thanks!
September 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAdamF
If Bloom is saying disgust is one of the worst ways to make moral decisions, it sounds like he is advocating against conservatism (as seen this article :

AdamF, if you click "download audio mp3" the file is there.
September 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrian M
If Bloom is saying empathy is one of the worst ways to make moral decisions, it sounds like he is advocating against liberalism.
September 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
It seems both Julia and Paul agree that knowing how disgust came about makes it easier to justify tearing down this fence, but then when it comes to children, where we can be even more certain about how and why we evolved to love our children, they say (or at least Paul says) he isn't certain about weather intuitions about close relatives can/should be overridden by utilitarian calculations. This seems inconsistent.
October 7, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMark L
I'm very sympathetic to Blooms point of view. We see some things like Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, that have carried the day against 50 years of solid research as a result of the "Empathy," Bloom mentions. So wide spread is this disease in politics that only the much-defamed Tea Party (of which I am not a member) candidates seem to focus on a strong economy that raises all boats.

Due to a concerted propaganda from media, the Tea Party is anathema to both special interest democrats, and do-nothing or obstructionist "Old School" republicans. Perhaps Bloom's utilitarian rubric will start a ground-roots movement outside the watchful eye of the media. One that enables people to ask questions that can't be asked about, balanced federal budgets, limited military intervention, maximizing small businesses profits (where 75% of job growth happens). Questions like why is AiG or Goldman, of GM too big to fail?

Bloom is onto something that strangely coincides with Bentham and Mill. Thomas Sowell has been giving us an abductive rationale of the data against The Great Society since the early 1970s. Perhaps Bloom's excoriation of empathy will open people up to looking at the data. Nah. On that point we can all agree to be skeptics!
December 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKarl
Do you have a link for that article about interviews with warlords?
March 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Lebovitz
We probably need to redefine Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion. Empathy should really just mean the ability to perceive someone else's emotions. This type of Empathy enhances the ability of people to understand other people. Experiencing emotions yourself, and making decisions solely on the basis of those emotions without rational analysis will lead to serious error. Perhaps we should call this Sentimentality.

Politicians state that they take their particular actions due to Empathy, Sympathy, or Compassion, but really they act out of self interest, and often times an anti social self interest. Politicians tell voters what the voters, given the self interest of the voters, would like to hear. This allows the Politicians to stay in power. When Politicians tell you that "I feel your pain" you should understand them to say "I want your vote".

If the Warlords maim children to get the attention and funding of NGOs, the NGOs should probably invest most of their resources into hiring mercenaries to kill the Warlords. More NGOs need to focus on contraception and education (especially for young women), since over time this actually improves conditions in the developing world much more than other types of aid.

The dentist who killed Cecil the Lion thought he had paid to kill a dangerous wild animal, not the actual Cecil, apparently essentially a pet in a wildlife preserve. Therefore the dentist, not just the lion, deserves some sympathy.
December 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
Everyone has an empathic side and it varies with each individual in how it guides them. Sympathy, Compassion and the like are also part of the human experience in helping us become better Society's. But I think it's difficult to say when one is better than the other because of how related & interconnected everything is. So saying that one is a "terrible" guide to use doesn't really make that much sense to me because that emotion is always there lending some sort of direction, support, influence in the decisions we make. So frankly I just don't see how such a powerful emotion like Empathy could ever be reduced to some lower level of importance here?

And on the topic of that Lion being killed. What difference does it make what lion that was? It's a freaking lion that should be protected in the wild like all the other animals Stolen from their natural habitat! The whole story is asinine & absurd. This is when people deserve some level of Disgust.
February 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto

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