Psychologist Paul Bloom’s provocatively titled book Against Empathy asks us to consider whether empathy, the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes and feel what they feel, is flawed. Peter Singer elaborates on Bloom’s work in a recent article in the online publication Project Syndicate titled “The Empathy Trap.”
As Singer points out, while it is easy to empathize with the one identified victim, it is hard to empathize with statistical lives. This can cause us to prioritize the suffering of one person or small numbers of people over larger numbers of people. Another problem with empathy is that we tend to empathize with those in our tribe; people who look like us and share our religion, nationality, or political affiliation.
Before you think that psychologists like Bloom and Singer are cold-blooded for asking us to deemphasize our empathy, it is important to remember that, as Singer writes in his article, “to be against empathy is not to be against compassion.” Compassion, characterized by a feeling of warmth towards someone and a desire for their well-being, can lead to the kind of pro-social behavior that is so needed in a world where genocide is occurring and entire communities are displaced by war and climate change. Perhaps it is time to become more aware of the bias inherent in empathy and strive to be more compassionate people.