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20170415 – Against Empathy



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The main idea of this book is that too much empathy clogs vision and thinking preventing people from making good decisions and act reasonably. Empathy here means attempt to feel what others are feeling and act to alleviate their pain, which actually not a good way to achieve this objective. In short this is book in support of deliberate non-emotional decision-making and actions.



Here author presents reasons for his antipathy for empathy and why he decided to write a book about this. It also includes a brief review of the plan of the book and discussion of extremely critical reaction to its ideas when they were presented earlier in some articles published by author.

CHAPTER 1: Other People’s Shoes

This is a general attack on empathy in broad strokes: just establish author’s position on it. It starts with discussion on meaning of empathy and wide use of this notion in literature and everyday live. It follows by the reasoning that contrary to typical equivalency of use between two, morality and empathy are not really close notions. The morality is much wider notion than empathy and these two could easily go contrary to each other. The balance of chapter is about empathy not necessarily making world a better place and about providing responses to various types of rejection of author’s thesis of rejecting empathy.

CHAPTER 2: The Anatomy of Empathy

This and the next chapter are designed as zoom in on the psychology and neuroscience of empathy, exploring features that make it inadequate as a moral guide. This is also kind of review of mechanics: mirror neurons, their supporters and rejectionists, Adam Smith’s use of sympathy as analog to empathy, and even Baron-Cohen’s research on autism. The conclusion from all this is basically that empathy not really related to good behavior.

CHAPTER 3: Doing Good

This is kind of approach from other side of equation: why actually people do good, charitable things? The general conclusion is because it is in their perceived interest, which is well could be non-material. Author discusses empathy as process of trying to raise other people to own level in person consciousness that practically not possible to do. As alternative he suggests diminishing own need and wishes to the level of “other”.

INTERLUDE: The Politics of Empathy

This is about relationship between empathy and politics where author looks at approach to this by contemporary liberals (high level of empathy) and conservatives (low level). Technically this is not correct. It is rather two sides have intensive empathy, but to different people and issues so author’s point is that clear-minded non-empathic analysis and decision-making would do much better than passionate and empathic support of one side.

CHAPTER 4: Intimacy

This is about impact of empathy on intimacy. The search for most important feature for success in intimate live brought up not empathy, but kindness. He also looks at attempts to establish scale of empathy and corresponding bell curve. At the end author provides a funny formula that everybody could use to find out how much attention and effort one is inclined to invest in self and others: Self + Close People + Strangers = 100%.

INTERLUDE: Empathy as the Foundation of Morality

The foundation of morality obviously comes from the childhood so here author looks at the moral lives of babies and children. Author looks a bit at evolutionary benefits and costs of empathy and his preferred compassion when people help others without feeling their pain, but rather for their own psychological comfort. He provides a number of examples of such behavior in children, but stops short of claiming it has enough explanatory power.

CHAPTER 5: Violence and Cruelty

This chapter is about evil and idea that lack of empathy makes people worse. Author pretty much rejects this idea as way out of reality because it is not possible to have such level of empathy to other as on one has of self and/or “one of us”. Actually in this case empathy could lead to aggression against those who caused damage to “us”. The second part of chapter is about individual characteristic of psychopaths, basically rejecting explanatory value of lack of empathy for such cases. He provides a nice table to support this:

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CHAPTER 6: Age of Reason

The final chapter is an attempt to convince people that reason is a much better tool to achieve positive results than blind empathy and actions driven by emotions generated from empathy.


Generally empathy, as any other non-critical emotional response to reality, probably causes more harm than good. It prevents people from analyzing causes of distress and leads to actions that have deleterious effect on chances to achieve positive results. So I basically agree that the empathy is not only overrated, but also rather incorrectly rated as a positive feature, when it is at best is neutral and at worst is a negative feature causing unreasonable actions. I think that author provides a good example when discussing distress of Palestinian children vs. Israeli children when empathy of outsider bound to go much more to Palestinians who get killed rather than to Israelis who just have inconvenience of going to shelter when Palestinians start shooting their low quality low precision missiles. I think it is a great example of how empathy works and why it is useless as tool for improving world if we look at this situation a bit wider: The empathetic outsider in this case would insist on providing help to Palestinians, maybe even assuring that it was purely humanitarian help so outsider’s self-appreciation, conveniently forgetting that resources are fungible. However the realities of live when Palestinians’ objective is conquest and annihilation of Jewish population, while Israelis’ objective is just self-defense limited by humanitarian considerations for Palestinian lives and fear to become politically and economically isolated. The result is the continuing war without end hurting people on both sides. If one would remove empathetic outsider, the war would end long time ago. In this case, because Israel is militarily more powerful, it would most probably end in prosperous demilitarized Palestinian state alongside with Israel with Jews and Palestinians living in both states, maybe in different proportions. In another similar case a while ago, when Jews were powerless, it ended in Holocaust, but it ended nevertheless, even if empathic feelings of German soldiers to their victims were instrumental in costly change from cheap, if somewhat demoralizing, mass killing on the spot to industrialized processing with gas chambers and extensive transportation of victims to killing factories in order to minimize negative psychological impact on Germans.

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