Paul Bloom’s recent New Yorker essay, “The Baby in the Well,” has created a small internet stir by calling out the many vices rather than the oft heralded virtues of empathy—a major academic and self-help trend. Bloom’s basic criticism can be summed as follows: empathy distracts us from what really matters since it requires feeling or relating to the situation of others to necessitate social/political action; such feelings are typically directed at concerns of relative insignificance when compared to situations of dire importance that fail to engender much empathy. Hence Bloom’s point that empathy justified the millions of dollars in charitable donations given to the relatively affluent community of Sandy Hook, despite the fact that almost twenty million American children go to bed hungry each night.
But does Bloom really believe that it is foolish to empathize with the pain of others? Some see in Bloom’s position this very thing, namely an overly rational take on human relations which they label “anti-empathy.” For these critics Bloom is missing the larger point: the power that empathy has to facilitate human solidarity in the hope of creating a better world.
Bloom is explicit, however, that empathy has an important role to play in society: it is the “spark of fellow-feeling needed to convert intelligence into action; it is what makes us human; it’s what makes us both subjects and objects of moral concern.” Yet empathy, according to Bloom, sidetracks prudent political action when it is taken as the moral guide on how to effectively deal with the world’s most pressing problems. As he puts it, “the power of this faculty has something to do with its ability to bring our moral concern into a laser pointer of focused attention. If a planet of billions is to survive, however, we’ll need to take into consideration the welfare of people not yet harmed.” But is Bloom not caricaturizing the empathist’s vision of the world? Are there really empathists out there who believe that putting oneself in another’s shoes will allow for a global cure-all?
Bloom’s rebuff of the new empathy literature is in part directed at its utopian connotations. Hence his skepticism over recent works claiming that empathy is the man driver of human progress, the facilitator of global consciousness, and the best hope for saving the world from environmental destruction. Empathists, much like Marx envisioned the proletariat, must unite in the face of impending social, political and economic collapse in the hope of establishing a “global family” as a remedy for humanity’s ills; a castle in the sky Bloom views as not only self-defeating but dangerous for the world.
Bloom offers nothing by way of a substantive moral or political alternative to the idealism of empathy. He rather plays the part of the traditional realist: warning against wishful thinking and encouraging the politics of prudence.