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January 13, 2017 7:13 am

Too Much Empathy Can Be a Bad Thing

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Email a copy of "Too Much Empathy Can Be a Bad Thing" to a friend
Paul Bloom. Photo: Yale.

Paul Bloom. Photo: Yale.

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University, has just published a book entitled Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. The book raises some excellent questions. To put it simply, Bloom argues that empathy is not a very good basis for making ethical decisions. The book has been widely reviewed and attacked. Yet as any thinking person recognizes, it all depends on what you mean by empathy.

There is a distinction between empathy and sympathy. Dictionary definitions say, “Empathy: The power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.” Sympathy, on the other hand, might be defined as “sharing another’s emotions. An affinity or harmony.” Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably, yet differ subtly in their emotional meaning.

Bloom says that empathy goes much further than sympathy, and on the surface, he is right. Empathy only occurs in those moments when we share the emotional experience of another person. Empathy would cause a therapist treating a depressed person to also become depressed. Compassion is more appropriate than empathy. Compassion refers more to how one reacts to someone in pain or suffering, than how one actually feels. Bloom defines compassion as “concern for others, wanting their pain to go away, wanting their lives to improve — but without the shared emotional experience that’s so central to empathy.” I may feel compassion for my torturer, but I certainly will not empathize with him.

How often do we say, “I know exactly how you feel,” when we cannot possibly know unless we have experienced the same pain? We cannot get inside of another person to know what they really feel.

But we say these things when we visit the sick or a house of mourning, because we want to be helpful, supportive and emotionally present rather than scientifically or philosophically accurate and precise. Even if we have had similar experiences, we still can only extrapolate. We cannot know another’s feelings. Bloom argues that empathy is “biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism.” Sympathy helps add an important layer of reinforcement that, for example, can modify the extent to which we enforce the law. Sympathy for a poor man stealing to support his hungry family for example will lead his not approve of stealing but to try to find help for them.

Bloom wants us to be more analytical and accurate, and that is why he argues for sympathy or compassion rather than empathy. As a philosophy graduate, I am inclined to agree with him. The trouble is the Torah does not seem to. Commands to love neighbors or strangers surely imply more than sympathy. The Torah adds a layer onto justice and the law.

How do we explain Exodus 23:9 saying, “You shall know the feeling (nefesh) of the stranger because you were strangers.” We are specifically commanded to remember what the experience was like. Nefesh literally means the being, the very soul of a person. Doesn’t this sound like empathy? Except of course it was a command given to people who may never have experienced slavery and alienation in Egypt beyond the generation of the Exodus. It cannot mean having had the same experience. So perhaps Bloom was wrong from a Jewish point of view to suggest that such deep feeling ought to have no place in legal decisions.

It was a review of Bloom’s book by the Anglo-Jewish Simon Baron-Cohen in the New York Times Book Review on December 30, 2016, that helped me clarify the issue. He opens his review thus:

When I read about what happened in the West Bank Village of Duma on July 31, 2015, I immediately felt empathy. …a firebomb was thrown inside the home of a Palestinian family…18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh…burned to death. Within weeks, both parents…succumbed to their wounds and died. … I empathized with that Palestinian family despite my being Jewish.

It’s true that most Jews felt revulsion and sympathy. Indeed, from the president of Israel downward, expressions of horror, sympathy and support were overwhelming. I am very pleased the criminal was caught, prosecuted and convicted. But I cannot think of anyone using the word empathy or its equivalent. Was this because the situation is so fraught and so much pain has been experienced on both sides? And was it because when the crime goes the other way, the Palestinians hand out sweets in celebration?

So why, I ask, did Simon Baron-Cohen present this anti-Israel narrative?

Of course, I thought, here is another example of a Jews eager to burnish their left-Wing credentials. Empathy, in this case, means more than sympathy. It is an assertion of political loyalties and priorities. That, to me, proves that Bloom is right.

I sympathize with suffering; I can want to see suffering assuaged and conflict resolved. But I cannot empathize with a cause that seeks to destroy mine. Although I do not support settlements, when a political argument is supported with violence, I cannot empathize with it, because I am a potential target, too.

When the Torah talks about understanding the soul of the stranger and insists that we treat the stranger as one of us, that is when the stranger is a partner in society. But when the stranger is positively trying to destroy your community, there is no such exhortation.

I do not know what any particular Palestinian or ISIS sympathizer feels towards Jews. But as a group, I know that they are not favorably inclined towards us. They have been indoctrinated to dislike Jews. I understand this. I understand their antipathy, and I sympathize with their predicament. But I cannot empathize with them, because they cannot empathize with me. Neither can I empathize with those who behave inhumanly, or dehumanize others.

I wonder if it isn’t precisely because Judaism emphasizes care, concern and sympathy that so many Jews have the tendency to go too far in expressing empathy and sympathy, even when it is to our detriment.

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  • Daniel King

    Rational assessment all the way. You actually need it in order to decide if the “feelings” a person is displaying are in any way justified given their circumstance – as many people experience inappropriate or exaggerated emotions in response to a range of situations, both rational and irrational. Many psychological problems give rise to wide variety of imbalances in emotions; and sometimes, people use them deliberately, in order to gain sympathy, and to manipulate people in their surroundings; and the media and politicians and just about anyone can play these games. So you definitely wouldn’t want to use empathy as the foundation of your justice system, because emotions can be symptom of something internal (not circumstantial, not to do with justice at all) or they can be used manipulatively to exploit others compassion; so you have to assess the situation and what you know about that person; or what you know about that media source, and so on; to figure out if it is a “real ” response to some situation – such as someone making hurtful comments, or sad news, or an injury, or a shock, and the like. For the most part the situation is quite obvious enough and it require comforting skills; again, its more important to actually have the comforting skills, rather than to perform some dazling act of insight into another person’s mind. No use empathizing if you are clueless as to how to actually support the person is there! SO even in the best case, it has to be empathy + practical course of action and some degree of comforting skills and forward planning on what to do , how to make it a bit better, who to call, and so on! YOu always need a justice framework in place to figure out from the total circumstances who if anyone is to blame for things; and it gets very painstaking, and results in months’ long court cases to decide the facts sometimes; or special inquiries which last for decades; or becomes a work of historical analysis over the ages. There are usually more layers to a situation than what you see before your eyes. So yeah definitely with S. Baron-Cohen on this one. It would be especially misleading to say empathy “good for morals ” if someone experience it intensely in response to just about everything, but the effect on them is so painful etc, that they actually themselves become depressed and so withdrawn from life that they do almost nothing ; in that case, the empathy effectively just created extra copies of the original trauma lol. Id be inclined to be very sceptical on empathy absent of rationality and preferably also a decent plan of action how to actually help the person concerned!

  • Igor

    Absence of empathy make one sociopath, too much empathy make one an idiot

  • marty greencheeks

    “when a political argument is supported with violence, I cannot empathize with it, because I am a potential target, too.”
    well said