Book Review: Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom

Who would go against empathy? As the writer points out, it makes us feel all cuddly and happy. It is something that is an integral part of our relations with others. Without it, who is to say we wouldn’t be tearing each other apart? But is it so? Paul Bloom writes that empathy isn’t all cut out for what it is marketed for. Because of it, we make foolish decisions, sacrificing the multitude in the face of one. It skews our thinking, and we end up ignoring facts, drawing up plans, or getting rid of them because we cannot differentiate one unfortunate incident from a good policy that might and would help the many. Bloom goes beyond showing empathy can lead to cruel and unusually violent acts. Yet, we seem to come embedded with it, to some degree at least. It might be something that makes human relations work and our survival more likely.

So what does Paul Bloom suggest using as a guideline for our actions: rational compassion, as the title already gives away. He argues that rational compassion can be seen as the next level of empathy. It helps us make logical decisions without focusing on the one or getting ourselves burned in a helping profession (therapists and whatnots.) He might be right there. With rational compassion, there is functionality. Empathy can cloud our thinking. He convinced me. Yet, in a way, the foundations of his argument are utilitarian. Utilitarianism has its fault. No ism can live up against reality. Circumstances matter. Thought viewing through rational compassion doesn’t mean individuals and circumstances don’t matter. I’m not trying to say that. Still, clearly, the foundation of the argumentation lies in the utilitarian view of making actions. The author goes even on to state that John Rawls’s theory of “justice as fairness” could be seen as a foundation for how rational compassion works at the national level. For those of you who have read their Rawls, you know about the veil of ignorance and deciding behind it. That precisely removes the individual and circumstances. But then again, Rawls argued about policy making; on that level, many should outweigh the few. Yes?

The utilitarian heavy foundation (I could be mistaken) was the only thing that irked me in the book. Okay, there was also the fact, as the author stated himself, that we could critique his theory by cherry-picking studies to make his arguments valid. Nothing new under the sun. And we can use that argument to invalidate almost everything we say. Impartiality is a tough nut to crack.

I liked the book. Paul Bloom’s argumentation is something we all should consider and then take a look at our actions through his lenses. Of course, we can and should disagree with him as a theory like this is hard to prove and even harder to make bulletproof.

Thank you for reading! Have a great day ❤

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