The Trouble With Empathy: A Response To The People Against Empathy

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Whenever someone is against empathy, they direct me to Paul Bloom. His book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, is worth a read. Bloom, a Yale professor, criticizes empathy, particularly the emotional kind, for leading us astray. But I believe empathy, especially when we use it to understand others’ thoughts and feelings (what I call cognitive empathy), is essential for making good, kind decisions.

Two Types of Empathy

Let’s break down the two types of empathy. Affective empathy is when you feel what someone else is feeling. It’s like when a friend is sad, and you feel sad, too. It’s a natural, human response, but it can be overwhelming. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is when you understand what someone else is going through, but you don’t necessarily feel their emotions. It’s like being able to read a map of someone else’s experience without getting lost in it yourself. This is the kind of empathy I think we need more of.

Balancing Rational Compassion

Bloom argues that we should make decisions based on rational compassion, which means thinking logically and not letting our emotions cloud our judgment. I agree that we shouldn’t make decisions based only on how we feel at the moment. But I also believe that ignoring our feelings or the feelings of others isn’t the answer. Imagine trying to solve big problems like climate change or social injustice without considering how people feel about these issues. That just doesn’t work.

I’m an engineer by training, so I get the appeal of making decisions based solely on facts and logic. But I also know that we can’t just switch off our emotions. They’re a big part of who we are. When Bloom hears noise in emotions, I hear something different—motivation. Emotions move people, and understanding this is crucial for making decisions that are both smart and compassionate.

Cognitive Empathy’s Role in Overcoming Biases

Cognitive empathy helps us connect with people who aren’t like us. It’s like having a superpower that lets you see the world through someone else’s eyes. This is super important in places like hospitals, where doctors and nurses need to care for all kinds of people. Cognitive empathy helps them understand their patients better without getting emotionally drained.

So, should we just give up on empathy because it’s hard and not everyone’s good at it? I don’t think so. Instead, let’s weave empathy into our policies, laws, and everyday lives. Yes, we need rules to guide us, but we also need to learn and practice empathy. It’s a skill, just like learning to read or ride a bike. Of course, there are extreme cases where people completely reject empathy. But these are rare. Most of us have the potential to be more empathetic, and we should focus on creating an environment that nurtures this.

An Empathetic Future Rooted in Our Past

Empathy is a bit like a superpower in our society. It helps us do good and connect with each other. Paul Bloom talks about using our heads more—thinking things through logically (what he calls rational compassion and I call cognitive empathy). That’s important, but it’s not everything. We also need to feel and understand each other’s emotions.

Think about it this way: if we only used our brains and never our hearts, what kind of world would that be? We’d miss out on what makes us truly human—the ability to care for each other, to feel for each other. Sure, sometimes empathy makes things complicated. It can even make us do things that don’t seem logical, like running into a dangerous situation to help someone else. But that’s part of what makes us special as humans.

Empathy isn’t just about feeling sad when someone else is sad. It’s about understanding why they feel that way and what we can do to help. It helps us break down barriers and see past our differences. Without it, we might end up caring only about ourselves, and that’s not a world any of us really want to live in. It’s Darwinian in nature, and we are above that.

So, while Bloom is right in saying that just feeling things isn’t enough, I believe that empathy is more than just a feeling. It’s a skill we can learn and grow like a muscle. We need to use our heads and our hearts together. That’s how we’ll face the big challenges in our world and build a better future.

Let’s not just think about empathy; let’s live it and share it.

Originally posted on

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