Against ‘Warm glow’ altruism

Research into empathy is thriving these days. Cognitive neuroscience is undergoing what some call an “affective revolution.” Some research even suggests that if you prompt subjects (students?) to see the world through the eyes of others, then their capacity for empathy develops as a result. In other words you can ‘teach’ people to be more empathetic.

The educational domain’s growing preoccupation with emotional intelligence alongside every CAS coordinator’s consternation at having to crack the interminable problem of service learning, has led to a lot of people valuing empathy. I can also draw parallels here with the way design thinking has evolved to put the end users needs at the front and centre of all design.

Put simply – having the ability to empathize is ‘de rigueur’. And when anything  trends, you need rational detractors to balance things out – to force the objective debate. Along comes Paul Bloom a cognitive scientist from Yale who argues that empathy is a bad thing and that it makes the world worse.

Bloom, controversially argues that empathy can make things worse, that it is usually not targeted at causes, but effects, that it is not a product of a systems approach, not does it work longitudinally or sustainably. This is why people care more about a baby stuck in a well or a dog that is viciously beaten than they do about  global warming or world hunger. The “identifiable victim effect” and the resulting process of empathy can be an impediment to true social justice, environmental solutions or effective altruism, Bloom argues.

“Such are the paradoxes of empathy. The power of this faculty has something to do with its ability to bring our moral concern into a laser pointer of focussed attention. If a planet of billions is to survive, however, we’ll need to take into consideration the welfare of people not yet harmed—and, even more, of people not yet born. They have no names, faces, or stories to grip our conscience or stir our fellow-feeling. Their prospects call, rather, for deliberation and calculation. Our hearts will always go out to the baby in the well; it’s a measure of our humanity. But empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.”

Another argument for a more circumspect deployment of empathy from Roman Krznaric.

Peter Singer’s TED talk, The why and how of effective altruism, links to Bloom’s ideas and is well worth watching.


Related resources

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