Emotional Empathy vs Rational Compassion

Yesterday, I posted a Facebook message about the importance of being willing to allow ourselves to risk being uncomfortable if we really want to help in the fight against oppression though racial, religious, and gender biases.

It is true that much learning requires the discomfort of accepting that our previous understanding may be flawed, or that we have completely lacked understanding  without realizing it.

To be able to learn we have to be willing to risk being wrong in the process, as well as risk being challenged and having to prove we are right.

While true growth is possible without at least some level of discomfort, it rarely seems to occur that way.

Which brings us to today’s thought exercise.

This morning I came across this article entitled “The Perils of Empathy,” by Paul Bloom.

Dr. Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University.

The introductory, one line, hook for the article read:

“In politics and policy, trying to feel the pain of others is a bad idea. Empathy distorts our reasoning and makes us biased, tribal and often cruel

This apparent click-bait intro made it appear to me as yet another article telling us to be dispassionate and disconnected so we could continue to make the business and political decisions that would continue to increase disparity and disadvantage to certain groups of people — especially when it was being distributed through the Wall Street Journal.

I almost completely skipped over it specially because of the title and the introduction text, because as a person who prides himself on empathy and compassion, it felt like a direct affront to my own beliefs and attitude.

But I remembered my own comments from yesterday and decided that instead of avoiding something that was obviously going to make me uncomfortable that I’d read it. And once committed to starting, I made the decision to finish no matter how uncomfortable or upset the text made me.

I’m glad I started, and I’m glad I made that decision to finish beforehand, or I would have given up after the first few paragraphs.

The essay itself is adapted from the author’s upcoming book “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.”


The author isn’t telling us not to care, he’s warning against letting irrational emotions drive our decision making in response to that caring.   He makes a very strong case for intellectual, rational, compassion.

And he is absolutely correct.

I will be reading his book when it is released next week, and would strongly encourage you to read today’s essay.

You can read it here.

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