We’ve all heard versions of the Cherokee saying, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” The adage describes empathy, the ability to identify with the experience of others based on our own. The more experiences we have, the greater our emotional I. Q. and our ability to relate to those around us.
By way of example, I received a handful of sympathy cards, recently, mistakenly put in my message box at the retirement center. They were meant for someone else, a woman whose husband is gravely ill. Though I’ve never married, I have lost people dear to me, so I could understand her state of mind and express my concerns for her when I gave her the cards. I equate that shared feeling with compassion and deem it to be among the noblest of human traits.
To my surprise, Paul Bloom’s recent book, Against Empathy argues the opposite. We humans, he avows, would be better off with less empathy because when we rely on it, we limit our capacity to exceed our experiences. We also limit the number of people for whom we can feel empathy. When people are too different from ourselves, we may not only lack empathy but we can become indifferent or even hostile to their experiences. For me, mutilating female genitals, no matter the beliefs of the culture, is a line I draw in the sand. Nonetheless, Bloom insists when we restrict ourselves to our experiences, we can get a peculiar outcome, a situation where we can feel greater empathy for a single death in our community than we can for 100 deaths in a foreign land. (“Against Empathy,” by Paul Bloom, reviewed in Scientific American Mind, March/April, 2017 pg. 72.) Simply put, empathy encourages us to associate with those whose experiences we share and to treat those outside our experience as “the others.” Compassion, unlike empathy, Bloom insists, requires no recognition of similarities. He describes it as a “distant form of caring and concern.” (Ibid pg. 72. )
While empathy can move people to take positive actions, Bloom asserts the reasons behind those actions may come from negative experiences, the dark side of empathy. People’s feelings of compassion have no connection to negative experiences.
Bloom’s theory has its critics, and I, too, find his notion of compassion hard to conceive. What is pure love? Perhaps Mother Teresa had it. She defines compassion as a reaching beyond our experiences and beyond ourselves. I confess, I can’t conceptualize so abstract a notion.
Nonetheless, Bloom’s thesis has some science behind it. Researchers have found that empathy and compassion aren’t neighbors in the human brain. Empathy shares its space with pain. Compassion has love for a roommate.