EconTalk — Paul Bloom

On: Cruelty.

Episode: N/A

Date: September 2018

Background: Yale University psychologist, author of “Against Empathy”.

Key Subjects:

  • Empathy:
    • Sharing someone else’s emotions.
    • Fairly primitive and often less productive than cognitive empathy: consciously trying to take their perspective.
  • What motivates cruelty.
    • Disputes that dehumanizing is always a precursor to cruelty.
    • Sometimes explicit recognition of humanity goes along with cruelty.
  • Cruelty of small acts that accumulate into disproportionate punishment (Twitter mob shaming).
    • Social media promote disproportionate responses.
      • There is a general lack of calibration mechanism on social media.
    • Encouraged by anonymity on social media:
      • Shamer’s own behaviour goes unchecked.
        • Not worried about their own mistakes.
        • No risk to reputation.
  • The role of respect:
    • The need for respect is stronger with close friends / relatives than with strangers.
    • Similarly, the potential for disappointment / anger is larger with close friends and relatives (due to a lack of respect).
  • Contempt:
    • Is the opposite of respect.
    • A relationship killer.
  • Discussion on whether the abuse of a robot is a form of cruelty.
    • Consciousness / sentience of non-biological systems.
    • Role of pain and suffering as a marker for consciousness.

Key Takeaways:

  • Empathy is about “using your own mind but from their position” and how that informs your opinions and behavior.
  • Contempt is the relationship killer.

Worth Listening:

Paul Bloom’s thoughts on cognitive empathy are similar to the themes discussed in the David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement speech. This practical perspective on empathy can be quite helpful in managing the daily half-life of shitty emotions.

The danger is that engaging in this type of perspective taking can sometimes become an escapist form of emotional slumming: I’m temporarily visiting and I’m happy that it’s you and not me.

The “even more refined version” of cognitive empathy, as written about by Namwali Serpell, (see the summary of her article in the New York Review of Books “The Banality of Empathy“), is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, not to feel their feelings, not to understand why they do what they’re doing, but to think about what you would be doing (as “you”, not as “them”). 

This has more to do with trying to figure out what is the best answer in a situation (from your perspective) than trying to empathize with the various people in a certain situation. It is more about trying to find the perspective of indifference, a truth-seeking position.

There is probably a time and place for both. Cognitive empathy may be more practical in dealing with the minor hiccups of daily life; the more refined version may be helpful in more complicated situations (for instance, when you are figuring out your political stance on a particular subject).


Leave a Reply