Book Review: Against Empathy

Against Empathy is a book about the negative effects of trying to feel what other people feel by Canadian American psychology professor Paul Bloom. The book makes the case that concern and compassion function better in the absence of empathy. It also makes the case that empathy is a driving force behind much of the cruelty and irrationality in the world. The book is divided into six chapters and two shorter interludes, each of which explores a different aspect of empathy.

Bloom begins by defining his terms and laying out the case he intends to make over the whole book and in each chapter, as any good academic would. Adherence to definitions for the purpose of avoiding confusion is done well throughout the book, and is especially necessary when a word as widely defined and misused as empathy is in play. Rather than arguing in favor of psychopathy, Bloom advocates thinking with our heads rather than our hearts so as to reach a more consistent and helpful morality. Nor does he argue that empathy is completely bad; only that it does more harm than good.

The first chapter makes the distinction between cognitive empathy (recognizing another person’s feelings without feeling them oneself) and emotional empathy (experiencing the world as one thinks that someone else does). The shortcomings of the latter are the primary focus of the book, namely that empathy can lead to ignoring unidentifiable victims, denigrating logical choices that have superior results, letting our biases lead us astray, overrating present costs versus future costs, and sending unnecessary aid. The chapter ends with responses to objections raised by Bloom’s colleagues during the writing of the book.

In the second chapter, Bloom explores the neuroscientific aspects of empathy, including mirror neurons, the role of preconceptions of other people, and the difference between understanding and feeling. The difference between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy is important here, and it can be detected in fMRI scans. Bloom then discusses how empathy is currently measured, as well as the shortfalls of such methods.

The failures of empathy in the pursuit of virtue are the primary subject of the third chapter. These failures occur because empathy works as a spotlight, illuminating some problems and leaving the rest in the dark. This causes people to choose to help suffering individuals instead of suffering masses, to care less about the problems of a perceived out-group, or to engage in high-time-preference thinking. There is also the matter that one person can never truly feel what another person feels because one person does not have another person’s aggregate experience. In short, empathy interferes with a rational assessment of how to make the world better. Bloom concludes the chapter by praising economists for avoiding empathy in their analyses.

Next comes a half-chapter-length interlude about empathy and politics, which deserves more attention than it gets here. Bloom correctly states that empathy is not a useful measure of where one falls on a map of political views, but says little about libertarianism and nothing about anarchist or reactionary thought. The shortsightedness discussed earlier leads to incorrect long-term policy decisions, and empathy can lead judges to take decisions contrary to the letter of the law.

The fourth chapter is about the relationship between empathy and intimacy. Bloom argues that empathy runs counter to the special nature of a close interpersonal relationship, instead leading one to treat one’s family no better than strangers. He mentions an interesting hypothetical case of a pathologically empathetic person and shows how psychologically harmful this condition can be. It is interesting that there is no clinical name for this condition. Next, Bloom explores the difference between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy in Buddhist philosophy, which contains a similar distinction and a similar recommendation about embracing cognitive empathy while rejecting emotional empathy. After this, the difficulties that doctors may encounter if they are distracted by emotional empathy are discussed, as well as the negative effects that receiving emotional empathy can have on patients. Then, Bloom makes important distinctions between having useful past experiences, caring about people without using empathy, and having emotional empathy in the present. The positive role of empathy in apologizing for misdeeds is examined, and Bloom has no counterargument on this point.

The second interlude considers empathy’s ability to serve as a foundation for morality, especially from the beginning of life. Bloom considers that empathy may be foundational for young children but harmful for adults, much like human breast milk. He considers that selfishness may motivate kind acts, but finds the explanation wanting on the grounds of misunderstanding both natural selection and psychology. The topic is left as an open question, but the evidence discussed suggests that even young children are capable of caring without internalizing another person’s feelings.

In the fifth chapter, Bloom explores how violence and cruelty are linked to empathy. In particular, he discusses how empathy can lead people to commit cruel and violent acts, especially toward people who have themselves committed atrocities. Bloom correctly posits that violence will always be with us, as some problems are insoluble without it. Here, the spotlight nature of empathy is seen to maximize the impact of victimhood while minimizing the impact of perpetration, which leads to escalations of hostilities between nations and blood feuds between families. Empathy can lead people to falsely believe that they are doing good deeds when they are being cruel and violent. It can also lead wartime leaders to fail to recognize sacrifices that must be made to win the war. Next, Bloom looks at the nature of psychopaths and the role that dehumanization plays in atrocities. He shows that these are concerns are different from concerns about empathy. He ends the chapter by comparing empathy to anger, and finding both to be unworthy of removal from a person’s psyche, but in need of subordination to rational deliberation.

The final chapter addresses the role of reason and defends it against several attacks. After all, an argument that presupposes rationality can be undermined by a case that people are fundamentally irrational. This chapter could have been improved by including the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, as it would have added a strong defense of objective morality. Like so many controversial academics who encounter social justice warriors, Bloom was told to check his privilege, which he rightly dismisses as nonsensical, though “SJWs are the real bigots” is not a sufficiently sharp response. He addresses the concern that regardless of the virtues of reason, humans are incompetent at it. But this can be shrugged off by noting that reason is objective and thus not subject to individual competency. The arguments in favor of determinism lead to performative contradictions if taken to their logical conclusions, but Bloom does not attack them in this fashion. A second attack on reason comes from psychological studies that show how people can be subconsciously influenced, but to know this is to know to take corrective steps to eliminate the problem. Finally, Bloom makes the case for rationality by discussing the strong correlation between high IQ and success, as well as the correlation between self-control and success. He briefly returns to politics to note the irrationality there, but concludes that this is due to the political systems rather than the participants themselves. Bloom ends the book by conceding that empathy can have good results, but that this is the exception and not the rule.

In a sense, Bloom does not go far enough. The concept of conspicuous compassion is barely mentioned, and there are some cases in which psychopathy can be used for beneficial results. The final chapter is in need of stronger logical cases against Bloom’s critics. Even so, Against Empathy is thought-provoking and much-needed to stem a tide of books that take too bright a view of empathy.

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Review: In Our Own Image

In Our Own Image is a book about the prospects of creating artificial intelligence as well as the cultural, economic, historical, philosophical, and political concerns about it by Greek author and scientist George Zarkadakis. The book considers the problem of AI from the perspectives of human evolution, cybernetics, neuroscience, programming, and computing power.

Zarkadakis begins by briefly speaking of his early years and doctoral research, then spends the rest of the introduction outlining what he will discuss in the rest of the book. The book proper is divided into three parts, each with five or six chapters. The first part covers the evolution of the human brain from the primate brain, especially the most recent 40,000 years. The role of language in accelerating human progress is discussed, as well as the effects of totemic thinking, story-telling, philosophical dualism, and theory of mind. The use of metaphor and narrative to understand the world is examined, along with the inaccuracies inherent in them. The invention, uses, and limitations of the Turing test are explored, as are Asimov’s laws of robotics and the role of AI in fictional stories throughout history.

The second part is about the nature of the mind. The differences in approach between dualism versus monism, rationalism versus empiricism, and materialism versus Platonism are discussed. The thought experiment of the philosophical zombie and the possibility of digital immortality are explained. On the matter of why there appears to be no other intelligent life in the cosmos, Zarkadakis shares an interesting hypothesis: science is an unnatural idea at odds with our cognitive architecture, and an intelligent alien species would be unlikely to widely adopt it. This means that the universe is likely full of Platos, as well as Ancient Greeces, Romes, Indias, Chinas, and Mayas, but is perhaps devoid of Aristotles and societies advanced beyond that of humanity in the early eighteenth century. Daniel Dennett’s explanation of consciousness is overviewed, as well as the contributions of a great number of scientists to the field of cognitive psychology. Finally, the field of cybernetics and its offshoots are examined, showing that the hard problem of consciousness is actually solved with ease. The brain-in-a-vat paradigm of consciousness is shown to be insufficient by applying cybernetic theory.

Everything up to this point lays the foundation for understanding the last part of the book. The third part details the history of computers and programming, from ancient theorists to more recent mathematicians, and from punched cards to modern electronics. The limitations of symbolic logic and the implications thereof against AI in conventional computers are explored, and possible solutions in the form of new electronic components and computer architectures are explained. Charles Babbage’s inventions are discussed, as well as the lost potential of their lack of adoption in their own time. The role of computational technology during World War II is considered, along with the results of government spending on computer research at the time. The development of supercomputers, including IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson, is outlined. The ‘Internet of things’ is compared and contrasted with true AI, and the possible societal impact of large-scale automation of jobs is considered. The possibility of evolving rather than creating AI is examined, as are the possible dispositions of an AI; friendly, malevolent, or apathetic. Interestingly, Zarkadakis shows that there is good reason to believe that a strong AI may exhibit autism spectrum disorders. A short epilogue that begins with a summary and then considers possible economic, political, and social implications of strong AI completes the book.

The book is well-researched and impeccably sourced, at least in its core subject matter. That being said, the book struggles to find an audience, as it can be a bit too technical for the average layperson, but does not venture deeply enough into the subjects it covers to interest a professional in AI-related fields. In other words, it is lukewarm where being either cold or hot is best. Zarkadakis also commits some ultracrepidarianism, particularly in the fields of economics and politics. He seems to believe that AI will overcome the limitations described by Hayek’s knowledge problem and Mises’s economic calculation problem, but unless AI can get inside of our heads and know us better than we know ourselves, this is impossible. In politics, he briefly mentions the possibilities of AI leading to anarchism or to neoreactionary-style absolute monarchies with computerized philosopher-kings, but does not give these possibilities the amount of consideration that they warrant. Finally, the book contains more typographical errors and grammatical abnormalities than a competent editor should fail to correct, though we may grant Zarkadakis some leeway because English is not his first language.

Overall, In Our Own Image is worth reading for those who already have some knowledge of the subject matter but would like to fill gaps in their understanding, but there is room for improvement and expansion.

Rating: 4/5

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Why Economic Patriotism Is Nonsense

As the 2014 midterm elections approach, Democratic candidates led on by President Barack Obama and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew are adopting rhetoric against corporate inversions, which they define as “the ability of American companies to avoid U.S. taxation by combining with a smaller foreign business and moving their tax domicile overseas.” In such rhetoric, Lew has called for “a new sense of economic patriotism, where we all rise or fall together.”

The phrase “economic patriotism” has been defined in many different ways by different politicians at different times, and some of these definitions contradict others. The current definition espoused by Obama and Lew appears to be something resembling “a duty to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of Americans, and the duty not to relocate the tax domicile of a corporation to pay less taxes.” Therefore, the best approach toward countering economic patriotism is to refute utilitarianism, show that paying higher corporate taxes is economically unsound, refute the idea that corporations should be loyal to the US government, and explain why economic cosmopolitanism, known more simply as free trade, is superior to economic patriotism.

I. Utilitarianism

The task of dispensing with utilitarianism, or “the greatest good for the greatest number,” is rather lengthy but not so difficult. Utilitarianism is a subset of consequentialism, which is the class of normative ethical theories which regard the consequences of an action as the basis for its rightness or wrongness. Therefore, if consequentialism is shown to be false, then utilitarianism fails a fortiori.

When people agree to engage in rational argumentation, they implicitly accept certain behavioral norms. Among these are that truth is universally preferable to falsehood, and that one will make an effort to persuade others to agree with one’s philosophical position. (This does not mean that all people at all times will behave as such; only that they should behave as such.) These norms must be accepted because to reject them is to leave one’s colleagues in argumentation with no reason to believe that one is making an honest effort toward creating valid arguments (and therefore every reason to believe that one is jesting, trolling, and/or lying).

Disproving consequentialism requires two steps. First, we must prove indeterminism. Determinism is the philosophical position that for every event, including human action, there exist conditions that could cause no other event. It logically follows from determinism that it is impossible to persuade others of one’s philosophical position, as strict determination of human actions (and therefore, a person’s philosophical position) would mean they were completely necessitated by past events beyond present control, and therefore not alterable by argumentation. But the effort to persuade others of one’s philosophical position is a condition of rational argumentation. Thus, to argue for determinism is to try to persuade someone to agree with the philosophical position that it is impossible to persuade someone to agree with one’s philosophical position, which is a performative contradiction. Therefore, indeterminism must be true.

Now, we can disprove consequentialism. Consider two people who find themselves in identical situations and who take identical actions. Because of indeterminism, the future is not directly knowable by extrapolating from the past. Thus, the consequences may play out differently in each case. Regardless of one’s criteria (or lack thereof) for distinguishing good consequences from evil consequences, the situations may play out with good consequences in one situation and with evil consequences in the other situation. This means that the same action taken under the same circumstances can be both good and evil. This is a contradiction, therefore consequentialism is false.

NB: There is a notable sidestep to the above argument. One could take the position that free will is not a prerequisite for rationality or for trying to change a person’s mind, which would be free from internal contradictions if one is determined to persuade someone of something, and the receiver of the argument is determined to accept it. But this position necessitates a lack of responsibility for one’s actions, as those involved in the argument would have no choice, and therefore no moral agency. Therefore, the end result is moral nihilism, which would also disprove consequentialism if correct.

II. Corporate Taxes

From a moral standpoint, any form of taxation is armed robbery, possessing/receiving/transporting stolen goods, slavery, trespassing, communicating threats, and conspiracy to commit the aforementioned crimes. But let us consider the economic aspect of corporate taxation in particular. The first thing to note is that there is really no such thing as corporate taxation. When a government levies taxes on a corporation, those who own the corporation will treat the taxes as a cost of doing business, which gets included in the prices of goods and services offered by the corporation. Thus, any tax upon corporations is ultimately a tax upon their customers, not upon those who own the corporation or invest in it. Secondly, any money that a business must pay in taxes is money that the business cannot use for any other purpose. This means that when businesses are taxed, they are discouraged from hiring more workers, paying higher wages, performing research and development, and offering better goods and services at lower costs to consumers. Even worse, these effects are hidden (and frequently ignored by government economists) because it is impossible to count jobs and products that were never created because government taxes prevented their creation.

III. Corporate Loyalty

A corporation is a legal fiction created by the state to shield business owners and investors from being fully responsible for their actions. A corporation does not exist in any physical sense; only the workers, buildings, trade goods, etc. actually exist. Corporations allow business owners and investors to keep profits for themselves and force their losses onto everyone else. This government-granted immunity from responsibility is antithetical to a free market and would necessarily be absent in a free society.

But let us deal with the world as it is, not as it should be. In some perverse sense, there is some truth to Mr. Lew’s argument that “[t]he firms involved in these transactions still expect to benefit from their business location in the United States, with our protection of intellectual property rights, our support for research and development, our investment climate and our infrastructure, all funded by various levels of government.” At first glance, the corporation owners and investors are receiving services, and should pay for those services. But this view is morally problematic, as intellectual property violates physical property rights and all of the aforementioned benefits are provided through state violence and threats thereof against taxpayers, as well as debasement of the currency that they are forced to accept under legal tender laws. After all, governments have no justly acquired purchasing power of their own. It is also philosophically invalid to treat taxation as a payment for services rendered because the recipient of the service generally must pay for the service whether or not one makes use of the service, and has no choice of whether or not to receive the service at all in some cases. Furthermore, governments frequently prohibit competition with infrastructure by granting monopolies to service providers, such as energy companies and water companies. Aside from the moral case, there is no logical reason why the owners of a corporation should be loyal to the U.S. government when they can find similar arrangements elsewhere, and it is logically inconsistent to attack business owners for moving their tax domicile elsewhere while continuing to do business in the U.S. while not attacking business owners for moving their tax domicile to the U.S. while continuing to do business elsewhere. Finally, Mr. Lew implies that the above amenities require government, a positive claim accompanied by a burden of proof. Like most statists, he never fulfills that burden of proof.

A step in the right direction would be for such unfair advantages to be discontinued, along with the immoral revenue-generating practices that fund said advantages, forcing wealthy CEOs and investors to play by the same rules as everyone else (and isn’t this what leftists usually claim to want?) Once that happens, the market will become more free and the correct ideas of the loyalty (to its customers) and duty (to its investors) of a business can become manifest.

IV. Free Trade

The opposite of patriotism is cosmopolitanism, or the lack of devotion to any government. It follows that the opposite of economic patriotism is economic cosmopolitanism, known more simply as free trade. Free trade is defined as trade in which no coercion or fraud is involved. All participants enter into the trade voluntarily and each participant benefits from the trade by their own subjective measures of value. This creates the most benefit for those involved because any amount of coercion or fraud present in a transaction increases the cost of doing business from what it is in the ideal state of free trade, resulting in lost opportunities. As shown above, economic patriotism necessarily involves coercion.

V. Conclusion

With the case made by President Obama and Secretary Lew so easily dismantled, why is there such a push for “economic patriotism?” Quite simply, they know that there are a significant number of voters who can be persuaded by such arguments because they are incapable of seeing through them. As always, politicians act in their own rational self-interest, which is to expand their political power. A “new sense of economic patriotism” is simply another means toward that end.