Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong About Empathy

I think the most impressive critique of Paul Bloom’s views on empathy is that of Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu. Usually, critics of Paul Bloom disagree with everything that’s true in his work. I find it impressive that Ingmar and Julian acknowledge all that’s true in Paul Bloom’s thesis. But unlike other critics, they’re really good at seeing where he has gone wrong. I’m really glad I found this paper, because for years, I thought there’s nobody who agrees with me on this.

I read Paul Bloom’s book about half a dozen times because I feel very strongly about this. Paul Bloom thinks people with Asperger’s Syndrome have low cognitive empathy, and are argued to have low emotional empathy as well. I feel very deeply about victims of injustice. When I read other Aspies, I notice they feel quite the same way too. Why isn’t it possible that this is why Aspies show no propensity for violence and exploitation? Now, there’s growing evidence that, if anything, Aspies feel more deeply. That’s what they call “The Intense World Hypothesis”. I’m not sure whether Paul Bloom would agree this is empathy, but it seems his book is against feeling deeply, though he claims it’s against empathy. It’s not a book against empathy, but a book against high arousal.

Julian and Ingmar also gets the definition of empathy right:

“Empathy is not actually feeling what you believe others to be feeling, as Bloom and Prinz would have it. For instance, when you empathize with somebody whom you believe to be feeling physical pain, e.g. because they have hit their thumb with a hammer, you do not feel physical pain; instead, you more or less vividly imagine feeling a pain like the one you believe they are feeling. You imagine what it is like to be them, feeling what they do. Notice that it is not imagining that you yourself are feeling what you believe they are feeling (which is what e.g. Smith usually takes sympathy to involve); it is imagining being them, feeling as they are believed to be feeling.2 However, it would be too strict to demand that empathizing with someone requires succeeding in imagining feeling something which is quite similar to what this individual is in fact feeling. You may be said to empathize with someone when you imagine feeling as you believe they do, though your belief is only very roughly right. Nonetheless, empathizing requires imagining having the right kind of feeling: for instance, you cannot be said to be empathizing with somebody if you imagine being glad when that individual is in fact sad.”

Paul Bloom thinks people who feel too much empathy maybe overwhelmed by other’s suffering, and run away from such situations. Aspies seem to fall in to this category, but that doesn’t seem to lead to inaction. Even Simon Baron-Cohen admits they’re usually the most passionate defenders of victims of injustice.

Plain introspection tells me it’s important to feel a bit certain way to see others’ pain as important. I don’t feel offended when someone disagrees with me. So I don’t think their “pain” matters when people claim they’re offended. This is as it should be. But when somebody is fired for saying something that offends others, I feel his pain. If this wouldn’t have any bearing on how I act, I’d be very surprised.

The fact that Aspies feel deeply is very important here. Paul Bloom says psychopaths don’t feel anything much. Aspies and psychopaths seem to be at different ends of the spectrum. Aspies are too nice and psychopaths are very cruel. But Paul Bloom doesn’t draw the inference that the depth of their feelings may have something to do with this. He doesn’t even consider that possibility. I find that strange.

Paul Bloom says cognitive empathy, while a force for good, is overrated and neither sufficient nor necessary. Aspies, he say, are a case in point because they lack cognitive empathy. Psychopaths are good at it. The problem with this argument is that Aspies are very bad at reading neurotypicals and neurotypicals are very bad at reading Aspies. Far from proving that Aspies lack cognitive empathy, all this proves is that they think and feel differently.

We assume normal people have better cognitive empathy because they think and feel as other people do. So they’re better at figuring out what makes them tick. This maybe a bad thing, because we descended from rising apes and not fallen angels. Our understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong is shaped by our evolutionary past. Isn’t it quite likely that descendents of rising apes may have quite demented views on what’s right and what’s wrong? And that’s what we see. Many social norms are based on certain assumptions about human nature such as envy is ubiquitous, people are mean-spirited, petty and cunning, and that they are offended when social hierarchies are violated. These assumptions accurately describe most normal human beings. These assumptions are so bed-rock in the minds of neurotypicals, and this is why they are so good at reading other normal folk. This is what makes them cruel. So, cognitive empathy, as it’s usually defined, seems to have a dark side. The biggest problem with “empathy”, according to conventional notions, it seems to me, is this. But Paul Bloom doesn’t even bring this up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *