For the most part, we tend to think of empathy as a good thing.
The world becomes a more sympathetic place when we intentionally try to understand what another person is feeling. It’s often seen as a bridge to communication and a fundamental pillar in having a moral and just society.
But according to Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale and author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, the concept of empathy is more complicated than we may assume.
In his book, Bloom argues that empathy itself is not inherently a good tool, only that it has the potential to be.
“I’ve come to realize that people mean different things by empathy. Some people take empathy to mean everything good or moral, or to be kind in some general sense. I’m not against that,” he told Vox.
"I think that understanding people is important, but it’s not necessarily a force for good. It can be a force for evil as well."
“There’s another sense of empathy which is narrower and which has to do with understanding other people. And that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. I think that understanding people is important, but it’s not necessarily a force for good. It can be a force for evil as well.”
To fully understand empathy, in Bloom’s eyes, we also have to consider privilege.
For example, a white woman who has committed a crime is systemically given more empathy than a Black man per our justice system.
Empathy, like other aspects of our culture, is not free from realities like white supremacy.
Bloom argues that empathy can be skewed in favor of an individual while ignoring the suffering of the collective — or to put it frankly, understanding where someone is coming from doesn’t always do good.
In his book, he cites how we tend to have more empathy for those who resemble us — which can definitely have dire consequences for society that already favors white cisgender men.
This isn’t to say that empathy isn’t inherently bad. In order for empathy to be effective and a tool for making positive change in the world, it must be practiced with compassion, which is actually caring about the greater good of a community.
Bloom calls this “rational compassion.”
Writer Sally Vickers writes about this in the Guardian, stating that “a sympathetic understanding is an imaginative attempt to sense another’s otherness without purporting to appropriate or own their existential uniqueness. The belief in a valid empathetic response suggests to me a form of wishful thinking that we are fundamentally knowable to one another – which we are not. Nor should we need to be.”
"Our differences are to be respected and are what make us interesting."
She continues: “Our differences are to be respected and are what make us interesting. Bloom doesn’t go as far as this, but believes that rather than claiming emotional identification we should be cultivating our ability to stand back in order to provide a more rationally effective programme of care.”
In order to practice rational compassion in real life, people have to be conscious of their biases — who exactly are we empathizing with, and for what reasons? — and how they are to be acted out.
In the case of climate change, it may be easy to empathize with why corporations fail to engage in sustainable practices: because it’ll cost them profit. But even understanding that, it’s imperative that we — individuals and governmental entities — hold them accountable for their harm.
In this instance, empathy, the act of understanding another’s position, does little good.
But rational compassion asks the imperative question of “what is the greater good for everyone?”, leading to the answer that corporations must be responsible for the damages they cause to the planet.
"empathy is neither good nor bad. But empathy itself will not make the world a better place until it’s in conjunction with rational compassion."
All this to say, empathy is neither good nor bad. But empathy itself will not make the world a better place until it’s in conjunction with rational compassion.
The next time we find ourselves thinking about how to be a more empathetic person, it’s definitely worthwhile to ask how we can be compassionate as well.
When the two combine, we’ll go a lot further and be able to care for our communities more with that intent in mind.
This article was originally published in the Goodnewspaper — Good Good Good's monthly print newspaper filled with good news.
→ Join thousands of people who get a new Goodnewspaper in the mail every month