The Devil’s Empathy

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by Neil Godfrey

Real life has called me to undertake several many hours-long drives this weekend and I’ve had plenty of time to listen to podcast interviews that have queued up on my thumb drive. One that I listened to on my way back home this afternoon was with psychologist Professor Paul Bloom who iconoclastically argues that empathy is not necessarily a good thing at all.

For the interview itself go to the Late Night Live site, Is Empathy Always a Good Thing. Philip Adams is a great interviewer.

The most current event that came to mind while listening to Bloom’s arguments was Donald Trump’s appeal to Americans to feel empathy for the families of persons murdered by “illegal immigrants”.


Empathy can be (has long been!) a tool to justify persecution, war, genocide.

Go for compassion. Even Paul Bloom argues that compassion is the greatest moral good in us.

I was heartened to hear Bloom even put in a positive word for Peter Singer’s contribution to the moral advance of humanity. Singer has persuaded many of us, millions, yours truly included, to look at the data, the facts, before deciding where our contributions will do the most good. Don’t always rely on the cute images of suffering children that sway with empathy alone.


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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “The Devil’s Empathy”

  1. “Is empathy always a good thing.” Yes, it’s always a good thing. But to say that is not to say that it is the only thing. It is not to say that we should make our ethical decisions without considering anything besides our feelings.

  2. It’s hard to see how we could have developed morality without empathy. Yes, it is insufficient, and at times counter-productive to moral behavior, because we feel more empathy toward “us” than “them”. But isn’t it the essential instinctual platform in which we have built more universal ethical systems? Would Singer have championed the moral rights of animals without empathy? To say it is insufficient is not to say it is useless.

  3. In one of his conversations with Bob Wright, Bloom once described empathy as “moral jet fuel”. That sounds about right to me. It can send you shooting off in any direction, whichever way your sense of morality is pointing. Persecution, war, genocide are examples of things that you and I probably don’t feel are moral, but I suspect there have been plenty of people in the past who felt that specific instances of persecution, war, and genocide were morally acceptable or even praiseworthy. So I don’t see why it would be surprising or paradoxical if empathy, the fuel of morality, could serve to justify these things.

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