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“I understand the large hearts of heroes,” wrote an ecstatic Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself”:

The courage of present times and all times,

How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steam-ship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm. . . .

I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.

The disdain or calmness of martyrs,

The mother of old, condemn’d for a witch, burnt with dry wood, her children gazing on

The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat,

The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous buckshot and the bullets,

All these I feel or am.

What an incredible claim these stanzas make — that in his cosmic expansion of self, the poet not only hears or sees other people but becomes them. A contemporary undergraduate might raise her hand and remark that Whitman has no right to speak about the lives of others, a project that can so quickly turn into speaking on their behalf. But Yale psychologist Paul Bloom would reject Whitman’s felt identifications for a different reason: they are unlikely to lead to good moral outcomes. “I want to make a case for the value of conscious, deliberative reasoning in everyday life,” he writes in AGAINST EMPATHY: THE CASE FOR RATIONAL COMPASSION (Ecco, $26.99). “If you are struggling with a moral decision and find yourself trying to feel someone else’s pain or pleasure, you should stop.”

“From My Window,” 1978, by André Kertész © The Estate of André Kertész/Higher Pictures, New York City

“From My Window,” 1978, by André Kertész © The Estate of André Kertész/Higher Pictures, New York City

“Empathy” is a capacious term, but Bloom limits his inquiry to the sense of “coming to experience the world as you think someone else does” — what Whitman conjured with more flair as “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself / become the wounded person.” Those who recall Bloom’s New Yorker article from a few years back — the baked potato to this rehash — will know the score already. Empathy is everywhere: on the lips of essayists, social scientists, activists, and world leaders, proffered as something to guide government policies and everyday interactions. But if you’re looking, as Bloom is, for a fair and objective basis for an ethical life, you’d better look elsewhere.

Empathy makes the moral compass go wonky. It is easily manipulated to provoke prejudice or violence. It causes us to elevate individuals over groups, so that we care more about one hounded slave than thousands in chains. It is exhausting and “corrosive” in intimate relationships. It does not make us more sensitive to more people; it is more easily aroused if we already approve of the person in distress. Bloom cites a study that found that people experienced more empathy for AIDS patients who got the disease from blood transfusions than for those who got it from using intravenous drugs. But for a more overt example, see the New York Times op-ed “Empathy for Black Lives Matter,” in which Glenn Beck explicitly excludes the “worst” elements of the movement from his generous fellow feeling.

Some of Bloom’s examples miss the point of moral action, or might better go by other names. Giving money to a panhandler, for instance, has less to do with solving a problem than with acknowledging a human being. A warehouseful of stuffed animals sent to Newtown, Connecticut, after the Sandy Hook shooting seems more like evidence of survivor’s guilt than of contagious grief. Against Empathy leans on Adam Smith, but Bloom is still committed to lab tests, too many of which “discover” only the most obvious facts of daily life. One hardly needs neuroimaging to know that taking in someone else’s sadness and feeling kindness toward that person are distinct mental activities, with distinct physical manifestations.

Bloom is so keen to reason empathy away, to prove that it doesn’t work, that he misses what is most interesting: the desires it expresses. Why do people want to feel one another’s pain and pleasure? What satisfactions does empathy — and the writing about it — provide? How did empathy become such a bankable bet for publishing houses and grant-seeking researchers?

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