Paul Bloom, in his recent book called Against Empathy, challenges us to question the role of empathy as a vital ingredient of goodness or morality. Bloom believes that kindness, guided by thoughtfulness, is the supreme guide to morality, while empathy is often morally neutral or even negative.
Bloom's definition of Empathy
By "empathy," Bloom is specifically referring to the phenomenon of experiencing and feeling what another person is experiencing and feeling. Many of us define empathy more broadly, so as to imply kind consideration for others' distress, a willingness to help, and an intellectual understanding of another person's problems. Even some of the researchers who study empathy are imprecise in their definition, leading them to include items about kindness or willingness to help on a symptom scale supposedly intended to measure empathy.
Bloom clearly is not talking about "understanding." He affirms that it is clearly and obviously important to strive towards understanding of another person's problems or situation, in order to be able to best act morally and helpfully. A variant of empathy, which we could call "cognitive empathy," refers to understanding, but not feeling, another person's emotional state. Bloom affirms that this cognitive empathy is important and positive as a social skill, but is not necessarily a guarantee of moral behaviour. With Bloom's specific, narrower definition of empathy (to feel what another person is feeling), he shows us the following:
Problems with Empathy
1) Empathy does not correlate with kindness. Many people who behave cruelly have a lot of empathy for their victims. In fact, sometimes the empathy for the victim causes a sadistic person to magnify their cruelty. A good fictional example is the character of O'Brien (the "Big Brother" agent) from Orwell's 1984, whose emotional and cognitive empathy guided him to personalize and maximize his torment of the main character.
Conversely, some people who behave with the most astounding kindness and altruism are not guided or motivated by empathy at all. People who perform daring rescues often do not empathize before they act. Having an empathic reaction in an emergency could delay a life-saving action.
One example is described of a person who chose to give his kidney to a stranger for a transplant, guided by a cooly mathematical observation of the needlessness of having two kidneys for health, while many people would face death without a single kidney. People, including young children, are usually motivated to do kind things not because of empathy, but because of a wish to be kind or helpful!
Empathy can actually deter people from behaving kindly, or from even being around suffering people, because the experience of feeling another's suffering is painful and aversive. A caregiver who is highly, reflexively empathic is at greater risk of burnout. Whole groups of people, such as those who identify as having autistic symptoms, may have much less "empathy" than average, but they are not at higher risk of causing anyone harm. Violent offenders do not necessarily have "low empathy"-- the psychological factors associated with violent behaviour have much more to do with low self-control than low empathy.
2) Empathy as a moral guide can cause us to behave in a biased or unfair manner. If we use only empathy to guide us to help a particular suffering person, it can guide us to help that person before helping someone else who needs the help more urgently. Furthermore, we empathize more easily with people who are more similar to ourselves, and who live closer. This may cause us to preferentially help others based on unjust factors (including age, race, ethnicity, etc.). It is easier to empathize with a suffering animal we find "cute" compared to a suffering animal (who may be in even greater need) who is less photogenic.
Bloom rightly critiques the tendency for empathy to be admired as a type of stellar quality, for all of us to emulate in a quest to become better people, better therapists, or better societies. He instead encourages us to strive towards kindness and understanding, with our actions guided by reason rather than the narrow, biased focus of emotional empathy alone. This view is supported by those considered some of the world's greatest altruists, such as the Dalai Lama--in this tradition, it is calm compassion, free of anger, which is felt to be the best guide for moral action, rather than the emotion-swept milieu generated by empathy.
I see Bloom's thesis as an extension of Kahneman's insights about psychological biases. Our biases and emotional responses are an intrinsic part of being human, but they easily become experiences which fool us, and cause us to behave irrationally.
Empathy, in my opinion, is a quality similar to eyesight or one of the other senses: it does not, in itself, have a moral quality. It can have a narrow focus, which makes it prone to bias, and it can be easily fooled by illusions. Having highly developed empathy does not make you more moral any more than does having sharp eyesight. If you believe strongly that your sharp eyesight allows you to understand things better, you may be very prone to others taking advantage of your belief, and you may be very prone to being fooled by optical illusions. This does not mean we should not cultivate our senses, including eyesight or empathy. They are important talents and skills, and they deserve attention and practice. It is just that we should not rely on them by themselves as moral guides.
I do believe that empathy is important, however. It just needs to be "tamed." I can think of many clinical situations in which an empathic moment--even to the point where I might shed a tear--has helped with my patient feeling a sense of connection and trust. A therapist who shows no emotional response to a patient's suffering could be experienced as detached, aloof, and cold. Also, many therapists have a reflexive suppression of their own affect, which is felt to be a part of professionalism, yet which causes an unnecessary and obstructive detachment. A therapist's practice of allowing their own emotions to flow empathically, and to manifest in the session, can be an aspect of fostering connection and demonstrating sensitivity. But if this empathy would lead to the therapist suffering with sadness or panic through the hour, at the same time as the patient, then this clearly would not be helpful! It would probably frighten or disturb the patient, and would also lead to burnout in the therapist. A brief moment of deep empathy can be very therapeutic, but after that point, therapy moves away from pure empathy towards cognitive understanding and gentle problem-solving.
Empathy can also be a joy of life to experience, provided it is not understood to be a moral guide. Empathy can and should be practiced and savoured, just as you would cultivate your other senses--but it should not be granted power as an arbiter of moral decisions.
Empathy for the Therapist!
Bloom makes a nice point that in a good therapeutic environment, sometimes empathy is most beneficial in the opposite direction: if the therapist is gently attuned and understanding, but calm and at peace, then the patient's empathy for the therapist may help the patient to attain calm and peacefulness in the midst of painful emotions.
Empathy could work this way in therapy as an example of social learning therapy combined with CBT: if the patient would see the therapist briefly having a deep empathic moment of "co-suffering," but would then see the therapist gently step back, in a thoughtful, compassionate calm state, this could be an in-the-moment example for the patient to follow...in this way the therapist would truly be an emotional guide. I think this effect should not be overstated, as the therapist's helping role may usually be much more modest and subtle.
The Importance of Listening and Showing Understanding
I believe it is very important to emphasize that we have been talking about Bloom's very focused definition of empathy. I usually use the term empathy in a broader sense. When people are meeting with a therapist or a friend, they often greatly desire to simply be with someone who will listen. Many people do not desire to have advice or reassurance in response to what they are sharing, at least not right away. And they may be frustrated if the other person starts to discuss their own similar problems. It is often very appreciated if the listener at times reflects back what has been said, to convey respectful understanding, of both the situation and the emotions involved. This reflection and demonstrated understanding is what I mean by empathy, most of the time. A typical example could be saying something like, "you had an exhausting day..." When giving this reflection, I would not normally feel exhausted myself! Sometimes a more elaborate or detailed reflection could be good, but sometimes prolonging these responses for more than a brief sentence can interrupt the person's experience of being gently listened to.