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Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion
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Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion

3.59  ·  Rating details ·  2,946 ratings  ·  463 reviews
New York Post Best Book of 2016

We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. Many of our wisest policy-makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, argues Yale researcher Paul Bloom. In AGAINST
Hardcover, 285 pages
Published December 6th 2016 by Ecco
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Apr 20, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017
"Empathy is what makes us human; it's what makes us both subjects and objects of moral concern. Empathy betrays us only when we take it as a moral guide."
- Paul Bloom, Against Empathy


I'm a sucker for pop psychology or moral philosophy or moral politics books. Kinda my jam. I'm also a fan of books that flip certain general assumptions about what is an absolute good. I remember first reading a book called In Defense of Elitism years ago after my freshman year in college. It was a catchy title, and
Jan 21, 2020 rated it it was ok
I’ve been on an odd sort of journey with this book. First of all, I came to it as a bit of a convert. You see, I’ve been doing research at work into intercultural understanding and multiculturalism, and a lot of the theory around that starts from the premise that for students to become interculturally understanding they first need to learn empathy. This hardly seems controversial – I mean, we have all read To Kill a Mockingbird, and so walking a mile in my shoes seems to be pretty good advice. ...more
Joachim Stoop
Feb 05, 2017 rated it liked it
This was not a very clear, graspable, usable book.
There are lots of valid points here and he uses a flood of empirical data.
But while he says he hates endless discussions about connotations, I found the explanation and meaning of the title all about linguistic nuance. I actually find the title a bit of a sales pitch.
'Against empathy'. Yes, but fom page one he defends himself against possible misunderstandings. He based this entire book on possible critique against his title, instead of just
Leo Walsh
Jun 06, 2017 rated it it was ok
I first stumbled on Yale developmental psychologist Paul Bloom reading a New Yorker editorial called The Baby In the Well: The case against empathy . It was an interesting dissection of empathy. Not because it's bad, but because it forces people into crappy decisions.

For instance, people across America felt the mourning Sandy Hook parents’ pain as they followed media coverage of the mass murder in horror. Understandable. Dead kids suck, and if you cannot feel a grieving parent's pain, you
Moshe Hoffman
Dec 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
"Against Empathy" does a nice job summarizing all the limitations of empathy, and our altruistic drives more generally, such as being nicer to our kin and neighbors, and being especially prone to newsworthy suffering and insensitive to numbers, scale, and efficacy. Paul rightly points out that our logical arguments and conscious deliberation often lead us toward more utilitarian considerations that are a better way to do good. In the process he reviews a ton of interesting experiments and ...more
Apr 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017-reads
Bloom is not really against empathy as in kindness, compassion, other-regard. He's against a kind of empathy that is short-sighted, selfish (as in simple self-regard), that stops us from thinking and using our moral conscience. When he discusses compassion it's in the context of "cognitive empathy" and not "affective empathy." He quotes Adam Smith a lot.

I wished for more emphasis on how empathy depends on a certain selfish or self-regarding feeling. I had this sense a lot while reading Leslie
Mar 23, 2018 rated it did not like it

I heard a lot about this book. In fact, a friend of mine suggested that I should read this book. The title itself is quite titillating.

As I began to read this book, I found it quite irritating. Half through the book, the writer is still busy explaining what he means by empathy. It is not an easy case to make for 'against empathy,' he tried but I did not find him convincing. Very often, in the book, I felt that he was supporting, and very mildly suggesting, something dangerous that human beings
Dec 17, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: culture
Really wanted to like this book, having long suspected that "I feel your pain" is part of an anti-logic, anti-rational trend that glorifies individual feelings above all. Aside from setting up some useful distinctions (empathy v compassion, etc.), the author muses at length on examples of linguistic legerdemain around the concept. Nothing particularly useful here.
Hmm, I thought I would enjoy this more than I did – or at least that I would be more stimulated by it than I was. It takes balls to title your book Against Empathy, but that's somewhat undermined by the fact that the author spends so much time reiterating a) what he means by empathy and b) that he is in fact very much pro-kindness and compassion. Bloom's definition of 'empathy' is the practice of feeling for a person/group by trying to feel their pain, i.e. putting yourself 'in someone else's ...more
Dec 01, 2018 rated it it was ok
Paul Bloom puts empathy in a jar and attempts to dissect it. It does not work, not outside the evolutionary context. We are in 2018, not 1958.

This is a magazine article, fluffed up to a length of a book.
Jan 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
I saw the title of this book and I had to read it. I mean, who could be opposed to empathy? Does he want us to stop being nice to each other?

The subtitle of the book offers a clue: Bloom would prefer us to be compassionate in more rational ways. When we 'put ourselves in others' shoes,' which is what many mean by the term empathy, it can lead to some irrational, even horrifying results. Whether it's making feel-good donations rather than researching to see where our charitable contributions
Absolutely BRILLIANT! This is a must read for anyone interested in things like:
ingroup/outgroup dynamics
policy making
social constructs
logic v. emotional regulation on a grand scale

Why out of 293 Goodreads reviews does this book only have a 3.75? I can't say for sure, especially since I have not taken the time to read all the negative reviews, but I suspect they come from people who pride themselves on being "a good person", because they identify as an empathetic
Wayland Smith
Oct 25, 2017 rated it it was ok
The author makes some interesting arguments about how empathy can lead public policy, and personal decisions, astray. It's written a bit dryly, and he goes through a few contortions with some of his logic at times. The short version is he more or less seems to think people should be a bit more Vulcan, and he's really big into that "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one" expression. It's an exercise in philosophy which made a few interesting points, but overall I had to push a bit ...more
This book offers a great argument against what we think of as empathy in psychology: the ability to feel what others feel.
Though the book was written by a prominent child psychologist I failed to find anything about psychology that I did not know already. Also the author failed to offer any explanation about why empathy came to be from evolutionary perspective. So I can say that this book was mostly a philosophical, ethical arguement against the use of empathy as our moral compass.
The writing
Oct 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.

“Against empathy? How could anyone be against empathy?”

That was probably my first reaction too, because I and the people around me are all focused on being good to other people, and empathy seems to offer a way to do that. It seems to offer us insight, so we know the right things to say and do. But Paul Bloom’s contention is that empathy doesn’t always lead us in the right direction: he reminds the reader that empathy is what makes us focus on one sick child whose
Feb 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
Interesting argument, but misleading title, as it's not empathy he's railing against, but small-mindedness. Packaged to be provocative without being as provocative as claimed.
Nov 30, 2018 rated it did not like it

Sure, if you randomly open the book anywhere the story being told will make sense. Try to combine these stories into a coherent message, and all you get is an ever shifting definition of empathy that amounts to “something that leads to bad choices”. So we make poor decisions when we rely only on emotion. Who knew?

At best, we can treat this work like the I Ching to inspire conversation. As a whole, it is gibberish.
Jan 24, 2017 rated it liked it
I'm not entirely sure what to make of this book. It definitely generated some good conversation and has given me a lot to talk about. But I think it would have been effectively done as an essay. In many places it seemed to just be going around in circles.
The key issue at hand is the role of empathy in moral judgments, not overall in relationships, storytelling, etc. As long as you keep that frame of reference very clearly in mind while you read, I think you can get something out of it.
Jan 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
I once gave a presentation entitled something like "Generating Empathetic Responses Through Cognitive Role Taking in Writing." I asked my audience, all teachers like me, how many of us assumed developing empathy in others was a good thing. All hands rose.

I agreed with my audience that empathy is pretty much a great thing.

I still remember those times when I powerfully felt the wrongness of something by immersing myself in a situation through writing. Somehow, merely thinking abstractly and
Jan 22, 2017 rated it did not like it
Author has a case...unfortunately it's buried. I was perfectly open to reading Bloom's dissertation that there is *too much* empathy, rather than the need for more. This seemed highly relevant to recent events, plus as a general rule: why is it that certain events get far more attention and time when others don't? Does empathy affect our judgment too much?

Unfortunately, Bloom's message is completely muddled and buried in what seems like a word salad. He goes off too long and too many times on
Jan 23, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017
Full of interesting content and discussion but the only problem was that his arguments, though grounded in sound reason and fact fell short in impact. I was left at the end of each chapter rather dissapointed that his arguments didn't have enough grit and bravado to both feel wholesome in its explaintory power and have that badass feel of being a contrarian.
Mark Henderson
Jan 18, 2017 rated it it was ok
Thesis is straightforward enough and the author himself suggests a better title in the first chapter: "Potential misapplications of empathy" (maybe an overzealous publisher is to blame here). He certainly didn't need 300 pages to make the point. Short read though it was, one can get his general point from one of many substantially smaller internet articles.
Apr 09, 2019 rated it it was ok
I really wanted to like Against Empathy, because I have recently come to believe that we too often use empathy as a means to keep people from taking responsibility for unsavory actions, and I also believe that not taking responsibility for actions comes at a price. I've seen this working in schools--teachers and parents with too much empathy don't give children the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, which is a disservice to their development and growth. Bloom's argument against empathy is ...more
Jun 07, 2017 rated it it was ok
If you're looking for a book that intrigues you at the beginning , confuses you in the middle , and disappoints you in the end , this is the book you're searching for!!

First , the idea was interesting. It's as the author had said “being against empathy is like being against kittens, a view considered so outlandish that it can’t be serious”.
A statement against empathy is something you don't see everyday , so I started the book having high expectations , awaiting the author to deliver a series of
This book is defeating a straw man.
Author is presenting a couple of reasons to think that what he calls empathy - feeling exactly what another person feels - is not always leading us to perform the best action, is not always good for the empathiser, and is not at the core of morality. But no one of the thinkers who have argued for the benefits of empathy actually claim the views Bloom is against, and few if any thinkers out there would define empathy in his limited way. The rhetoric of this book
So... I'm not sure the title was really the best. He doesn't really have anything good to say about empathy, but I can't quite say he's totally arguing for it to go away either (would that even be possible?).

Basically, he's saying that empathy is a distraction to true compassion because it biases your focus towards the wrong number of people (only one at a time, usually), the wrong people (only those close to you, usually), potentially on the wrong actions (short term actions), is possibly based
Leo Robertson
Mar 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I think this book changed my brain for the better.
Michael Austin
Feb 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2019
Being against empathy, Paul Bloom acknowledge at the beginning of his book Against Empathy is roughly the same as being against kittens. This is because most people see empathy is an ultimate good, so, when you say you are against it, you end up sounding like you are against love and compassion and morality and everything else that separates us from Hannibal Lector (who makes an appearance in the book too). Empathy is hard to be against because most people have too broad a definition of it.

He is
Aug 06, 2018 rated it liked it
Paul Bloom is certainly a talented writer. The book is a breezy and enjoyable read. On a modest reading, his argument is on solid ground. That is, as long as you relegate his argument to the domain of morality, then he is almost certainly correct. Empathy is a terrible guide for ethics. However, Bloom goes to great lengths to expand his argument to empathy full stop. He does a decent job being careful and providing qualifiers, but it almost seemed like his publishers wanted him to put out a more ...more
Annelisa O’Neal
Jun 08, 2019 rated it it was ok
Let me briefly explain my low rating of this book. It isn’t at all that I disagree with Bloom’s central argument, it’s that I don’t feel he is presenting anything that is new or remotely objectionable. Bloom uses a trigger title, but by the end of the prologue, establishes such a narrow definition of empathy that any reasonable person would also be against it in the moral sphere. As a matter of personal preference, I was also hoping that this book would present more philosophical reasoning as to ...more
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Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. He has published more than a hundred scientific articles in journals such as Science and Nature, and his popular writing has appeared in the ...more
“The Old Testament tells us to love our neighbors, the New Testament to love our enemies. The moral rationale seems to be: Love your neighbors and enemies; that way you won’t kill them. But frankly, I don’t love my neighbors, to say nothing of my enemies. Better, then, is the following idea: Don’t kill your neighbors or enemies, even if you don’t love them. . . . What really has expanded is not so much a circle of empathy as a circle of rights—a commitment that other living things, no matter how distant or dissimilar, be safe from harm and exploitation. And” 3 likes
“When empathy makes us feel pain, the reaction is often a desire to escape. Jonathan Glover tells of a woman who lived near the death camps in Nazi Germany and who could easily see atrocities from her house, such as prisoners being shot and left to die. She wrote an angry letter: “One is often an unwilling witness to such outrages. I am anyway sickly and such a sight makes such a demand on my nerves that in the long run I cannot bear this. I request that it be arranged that such inhuman deeds be discontinued, or else be done where one does not see it.” She was definitely suffering from seeing the treatment of the prisoners, but it didn’t motivate her to want to save them: She would be satisfied if she could have this suffering continue out of her sight.” 3 likes
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