Empathy, along with guilt, is one of the most “moral” of human emotions. In popular belief, empathy allows people to forgo selfish desires by experiencing the world as others live it, at least in small part. Empathy enables altruism and compels people to recognize the needs of others and act on their behalf.
But according to Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale, empathy gets in the way of living well and doing good. His new book, “Against Empathy,” contends that empathy negatively impacts the world, stifling the effects of the altruistic behavior that it promotes. Instead of focusing on the big questions, the major challenges, the global problems like climate change or war, we focus on the particulars. Emotive narratives drive the news cycle from one topic to the next, generating equal feeling for the individual victim and a million Syrian refugees.
Bloom’s argument against empathy rests on the belief that the ills of the world are not caused so much by caring too little for others, but by caring about the wrong things. If one says they want to make the world better, their failure to do so likely stems from irrationality rather than selfishness or apathy.
Bloom engages with the common sentiment that the story speaks more clearly than the statistic. Feelings, after all, are something over which we have limited control. But action need not stem simply from how one feels.
The discipline of ethics, properly understood, stands in the service of action. If in principle, one values people who live across the world as much as those in one’s own country, there are ethical consequences to such a belief. If one avoids answering the ethical question, there are still choices about how to spend one’s time, one’s money and one’s political influence. One inevitably makes those choices for as long as one lives. Poverty in the developing nations is far worse than poverty in the United States. The consequences of climate change are much more threatening to Bangladesh than New York City. The politics of immigration and international trade affect far more lives in far more powerful ways than the politics of the minimum wage. Getting the right answers is not enough: One must address the right problems first.
Effective altruism is a charitable movement whose primary concern is impact. By combining both the head and the heart, the movement hopes to discover and support the causes that will create the greatest good. Effective altruism is involved with organizations like GiveWell, which research, compare and rate charities against each other by effectiveness. According to Peter Singer, a utilitarian philosopher who has written in support of effective altruism, guide dogs cost $40,000 to train, whereas there are cases of blindness that can be cured for $20 to $50. If one had unlimited resources, it might be nice to pursue both guide dogs and medical treatment. However, if one has finite resources, one must make difficult trade-offs, and it makes so much more sense to fund treatment for trachoma given the number of people afflicted with the disease.
So how can we do the most moral good with our careers? The medical profession is commonly considered a good answer. After all, doctors save lives for a living. But that doesn’t mean that being a doctor is the most efficient way to save lives.
The philosopher Peter Singer has provided an interesting alternative for those who wish to maximize their positive impact on the world. Instead of following the traditional path into the nonprofit sector, he urges altruists to follow the “earn to give” principle. As the manager of a nonprofit, you might perform the job slightly better than the next-best candidate. But if you work in a lucrative industry, such as the financial sector, you can donate a sum of your income to impactful charities. Because another job seeker in your position might be less philanthropic, your marginal positive impact exceeds that of a doctor or volunteer.
There is certainly something highly counterintuitive about pursuing a job to maximize one’s earnings in order to be the best altruist. But counterintuitive does not mean wrong. The virtue or ideological purity of the philanthropist on Wall Street matters less than the children who spend their lives parasite-free. If empathy gets in the way of appreciating the value of these distant but equally human lives, surely it has a destructive influence.
Andrew Salmon is a junior in Calhoun College. He is a member of the Yale Effective Altruists. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .