Sounds like a dumb question. But hold on. Last week an article from The Atlantic showed up in my Facebook newsfeed. It linked to a video by Paul Bloom from Yale called “Against Empathy.” Rather than empathy, Bloom argues for “effective altruism” – a rational assessment of the big picture.
He begins provocatively by saying that “empathy is fundamentally from a moral standpoint a bad thing. It makes the world worse.” Bloom claims that empathy blinds us to the long-term consequences of our actions. For example, many people care more about a baby stuck in a well than they do about global warming.
Bloom even argues that empathy for the oppressed is often a key reason for going to war, and he cites the 2003 US attack on Iraq in those terms. But this strikes me as a red herring. President George W. Bush used self-defense as his main reason for going to war (even though Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11), though empathy for oppressed Iraqis was cited as a secondary reason.
Further, Bloom describes the warm glow of altruism as motivated by selfishness. And he has a point. People love to brag about how caring they are, and all the things they do to help others, when really they’re jockeying for social status.
But it’s also clear that Bloom is overstating his case. One man on Facebook really nailed it, commenting that, “We need empathy and we need cool rational thinking. It isn’t an either/or black and white thing.” Empathy sometimes “can makes us can make us short-sighted,” but “a world completely without empathy would be psychopathic.”
I remember from my college days 20 years ago that the ancient Greeks found virtue in moderation. That is, vice stems from excess or absence. Cool rationality without empathy can lead to psychopathy, but empathy in the absence of cool rationality can lead to enabling, short sightedness, and selfishness (to gain social status).
Which leads to another debate. Does altruism really exist? I guess it depends on what we mean by altruism. Maybe the simplest definition of altruism is the absence of self-interest. But there’s always an element of self-interest in everything anyone does, if for no other reason than your perspective is the only perspective you have. You can only approximate someone else’s perspective by referencing your own, and that makes it easy to misunderstand others.
Rather than altruism, I prefer to distinguish between narrow self-interest and broader self-interest. This basically comes down to the difference between looking only at the short-term versus looking at both the short-term and the long-term.
The friend who posted The Atlantic article noted that, “Altruists can be baited easily.” I agreed with him and added that lack of self-awareness is a problem. I elaborated that, “the altruist, believing in the purity of their motivations, is blinded by a self-serving bias that others can exploit.”
Achieving that balance between empathy and detached rational analysis is tough. Every situation is unique, there are no simple rules, and big mistakes will be made by me, you, and everyone.