Paul Bloom Misrepresented

Paul Bloom has been pushing for some time the idea that empathy can be troublesome. I don’t think Bloom says anywhere that empathy is totally bad news. The point he is making is that in many crucial examples it seems empathy overpowers our rationality and leads us to make bad decisions.

Whatever your take on Bloom’s thesis, in detail or in whole, I’m not addressing it here.

While many of his critics argue that he is wrong to varying degrees, some attribute an immoral motivation. It turns out that the latter are the morally indignant regressive that we have become very familiar with in other circles, whether it’s attacking critics of Islam or demonising every white male.

There was an article written a couple of years ago on Psychology Today, that mixed rag bag of good and atrocious articles. It’s by Denise Cummins (Twitter: @MindWithAView):

Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong About Empathy and Morality

With the publication of Bloom’s book on the topic this article has come to the attention of a few people. What struck me about it was the moralising tone that demonises Bloom. This is pretty bad stuff from someone supposed to be interested in science, and psychology in particular. How can someone in that field give their biases and emotive outbursts such free rein? I mean, Cummins lists herself as ‘Research Psychologist’ in her Twitter handle. Her bio on PT makes her rhetoric even more baffling:

Denise Cummins, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist and author. Her most recent book is Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas that Influence the Way We Think (Cambridge University Press, 2012). Her research specialty is decision-making and thinking. She is an elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science in recognition of her lifetime contribution to the science of psychology.

The article and the comments by Cummins aren’t the height of rational discourse you’d expect from someone aware of the pitfalls of emotional attachment to their own words; not really what you’d expect from a ‘researcher’ that’s used to having their ideas challenged.

I found it surprising, until I realised that emotional investment in emotions to the extent that she has to put up this kind of emotive defence of empathy is exactly the nature of her problem. Bloom would have a field day with this article and comments alone. Especially when it becomes clear that there is some serious doctoring of comments going on. I’ve not yet established that the doctoring is by Cummins and not some editor at PT. I’ve seen it before on that site – but that might be representative of some of the people invited to contribute.

Just to convince you of how wrong Cummins is going to be here, this is from Bloom in a Boston Review article:

… And so I’ve learned to clarify, to explain that I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.

This will mean nothing to Cummins.

This post of mine isn’t addressing Bloom’s thesis directly, or whatever case Cummins is making for empathy, but rather the misrepresentation of Bloom with emotive rhetoric. So, rather than address the arguments Cummins might be making, I’ll show my responses to her where I think she is misrepresenting Bloom. If you’re interested you could try to fit the sentences in this next paragraph to statements from Cummins.

This misrepresents Bloom. He is not making a collectivist argument, for the collective, at the expense of the individual. He is merely pointing out the cases where empathy for the individual can overpower the sense to make batter decisions. … Which is the point Bloom is making. … Not what Bloom is suggesting. … Bloom is not opposing this at all. … Nowhere is Bloom suggesting that power over the powerless desirable. This has nothing to do with Bloom’s thesis but misleadingly attempts to imply an immoral element to Bloom’s thesis. … This misses the point. It is not that we should not have empathy – that’s not what he means by ‘yield’ here. Rather, Bloom is suggesting empathy can not be relied on to determine what to do about a situation where we feel empathetic, that we must apply reason to what steps to take to alleviate the suffering that have aroused our empathy.

On the bases of this I wrote a comment that I labelled, “Missed Point?”, taking the comments at the time up to 17 or 18. In that comment I was questioning the case Cummins was making in light of what I had understood was Bloom’s thesis. But what surprised me was the rhetoric Cummins employed to respond to me.

So, with that, here’s her first response to me, below. Cummins comes back with rhetoric loaded with identity moralising statements, and still misses the point.

I respond to Cummins, calling out her rhetoric.

Next, the comments are back down to 16, my second comment criticising Cummins is gone, and a totally toned down (but still pretty bad) comment replaces her response to me – the mad regressive rhetoric is mostly gone.

This is how regressives work: covering their tracks. I’ve still to find put whether this is Cummins making the changes or some editor, but it doesn’t make Cummins look very morally concerned. If it is Cummins making these changes it makes a mockery of an pretence at holding a moral high ground


Update:

I responded to the doctored comment from Cummins

And Cummins came back, with this, and with comments closed.

So, Cummins misrepresents Bloom, responds defensively to my comment (and to others), engages in demonising rhetoric towards Bloom, deletes opposing comments and doctors her own comment so as to hide that rhetoric, then accuses me of “hysterical rants rather than respectful and reasoned discussion”.

I’d be glad to hear from any independent commenters on where the hysteria is coming from.


Read on for the comments in question, if you can …


Cummins 1

The interesting thing about Bloom devotees is how they sound like Ayn Rand
devotees when they defend their defend their idol. They re-word and
re-interpret and soften their idol’s claims so that the claims don’t seem as
outrageous as they actually are. And they attack their idols’ critics with a
ferocity that borders on fanaticism.

Rand devotees claim selfishness is a virtue and altruism is evil. They
believe that because altruism puts one at risk of exploitation–I give, you
take. Unchecked, this will continue, they fear, until I’m broken and
depleted. Rand believed altruistic policies inevitably lead to Soviet-style
communism and the utter subjugation of individual free will to exploitative
tyranny. Self-interest, in her opinion, was humanities saving grace. In her
view, it leads to freedom. It does not matter how much evidence one brings to
bear showing that pursuing Rand’s philosophy of self-interest has brought
about disastrous results. Her devotees ignore the facts and continue to claim
that the idea of always putting oneself first just makes perfect logical
sense.

So, too, with Bloom devotees. In his New Yorker article, he claimed that
empathy is “parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate” and that “We’re often
at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.” Yet his devotees
insist that’s not what he really means.

He cherry picks instances in which empathy, untempered by reason, leads us to
behave less than optimally in our desire to do good, neatly side-stepping
instances in which reason the opposite is also true. As I have been at pains
to point out, reason untempered by empathy has led to atrocities. Yet his
devotees claim that he is being misunderstood, so the evidence “doesn’t
count’ or instead “proves his point.”

The plain fact is this: Bloom argues that empathy is dangerous or just plain
silly, a knee-jerk emotional response that leads us to behave inefficiently,
stupidly, or even viciously. Our saving grace is reason, he claims. Or as he
put it in his New Yorker article “…empathy will have to yield to reason if
humanity is to have a future.”

Get it: Emotion is bad, pure reason is good.

My point, which his devotees either deny or claim is exactly what he is
arguing, is that empathy must correct reason as much as reason must correct
empathy.

People assume that emotions are scary, bad things that must be reined in and
ruled by reason. This is nothing more than folk wisdom and prejudice. Pure
reason can also be a scary, bad thing that must be tempered by prosocial
emotions. That is something that Bloom and his devotees just cannot seem to
grasp.

The new term that Bloom and his followers rally around is “efficient
empathy,” by which they mean empathy corrected by reason. But the parallel
case–reason corrected by empathy–seems preposterous to them, no matter how
much sound argumentation or evidence is brought to bear in the matter.

But in my opinion, what, at bottom, makes Blooms demonization of empathy so
attractive is that it gives people permission to distance themselves
emotionally from the suffering of others.


My response to that – which was deleted

“The interesting thing about Bloom devotees is how they sound like Ayn Rand devotees …”

I’m not a devotee of Bloom. I said, “I don’t think it does at all. Bloom’s position seems to be…” – does that sound like the follower of an idol that knows his work inside out?

It wouldn’t matter if I was. Address the points.

But since we’re on that track it’s amazing how regressive liberals (see, presumptuous assertions are easy) start thair counter attacks with that line. Anyone that responds to a criticism of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or anyone else that criticises someone they have it in for will have seen it often.

“They re-word and re-interpret and soften their idol’s claims so that the claims don’t seem as outrageous as they actually are.”

Funny, that. I suggest you have his view wrong, and you don’t merely assert I’m mistaken but also engage in the same sort of rhetoric that implies my disagreement with you is the ideological support for an idol. No chance of you actually addressing the disagreement then?

And of course Bloom says expliciitly in several sources that he’s not out to ditch empathy, as you explicitly say he is.

Take this: “To Bloom, empathy belongs only to the realm of the personal—how, for example, we treat our family and friends. But it has no role to play in moral judgment. Morality from this perspective isn’t about the creature in front of you, it is about society as a whole. That is what morality looks like from a high-altitude bombing perspective.”

That is clearly antitheitical to what Bloom is saying. He is saying the “high-altitude bombing” can be inspired by empathy that isn’t thought through. Helping the Iraqi people against an evil dictator is the empathetic starting point which if not tempered by examination, evidence, reason, leads to bad decisions like bombing people from high altitudes.

You totally misrepresent Bloom in that one paragraph.

” Rand devotees claim selfishness is a virtue and altruism is evil. … So, too, with Bloom devotees. In his New Yorker article, he claimed that empathy is “parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate” and that “We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.” Yet his devotees insist that’s not what he really means.”

That’s right. It isn’t. He is not making a selfish case at all. He is talking about how to be more compassionately effective. It’s not that we should not feel empathy. Rather it is that when we feel it, that’s the point we should not instinctively act on it but to assess what is needed and how we can help. Our compassion is more effective when we distance ourselves from the irrational responses the deep empathy can arouse.

“He cherry picks instances in which empathy, untempered by reason, leads us to behave less than optimally in our desire to do good, neatly side-stepping instances in which reason the opposite is also true.”

You’re cherry picking his statements to mean something he does not. for example, “As I have been at pains to point out, reason untempered by empathy has led to atrocities.” would lead one to think he is proposing pure uncompassionate cold reason; and with your references to Randian ‘selfishness’ you make it sound like Bloom is dismissing all moral concern for others, when he is making a case for better moral effectiveness.

” Yet his devotees claim…”

There you are again with your demonisation of critics of your position as some brainless devotees.]

“The plain fact is this: Bloom argues that empathy is dangerous or just plain silly, a knee-jerk emotional response that leads us to behave inefficiently, stupidly, or even viciously.”

No he does not argue that in the unqualified dishonest way you present it. He argues that it all too often leads to bad effects, and in that context it can be dangerous or silly.

Is it okay that I take your position to be that reason is dangerous and silly, by interpreting all your comments here as attacks on reason? I presume you don’t think that, despite the fact that you try to make out that Bloom is advocating the blind application of pure reason and no compassion.

“Our saving grace is reason, he claims. Or as he put it in his New Yorker article “…empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.””

Well, I sincerely hope that you think that too. Otherwise why are you wring a piece in a journal like this appealing to reasoned (if faulty) arguments as to why you are right and Bloom is wrong? It’s incredible that someone that relies on reason makes such a hash of it and ‘demonises’ reason (see, easy assertion about your position, just as you do to Bloom), the one aspect of humanity that has brought us out of the our emotionally reactive natural origins.

It’s the fact that humans have been able to reason that has stopped us applying empathy only to our personal groups. Poor reason (as you say, false) is what leads to the justification of slavery. Understanding that outsiders that look different aren’t just some other animal gives the space for empathy to be applied to them. A history of expanding reason about the similarity of humans has allowed us to extend our empathy. Reason has overcome differences, when other natural instincts can so easily prevent empathy and compassion being applied.

“Get it: Emotion is bad, pure reason is good.”

This is plain childish. Nowhere has Bloom said emotion is bad.

“My point, which his devotees either deny or claim is exactly what he is arguing, is that empathy must correct reason as much as reason must correct empathy.”

And so it can. And Bloom isn’t addressing that inevitable interplay of emotions and reason. He’s making the specific point that misapplied or over applied empathy causes problems that those applying the empathy would not wish if not checked by reason. It’s when empathy has kicked in and arounse interest, concern, compassion, that it often needs to be put aside so that an effective response can be provided.

“People assume that emotions are scary, bad things that must be reined in and ruled by reason.”

You see, there you are making this point when it ha zero to do with what Bloom is saying. Bloom isn’t fearing or dismissing emotions. he’s making an objective assessment of when and how they are effective, and when we should be wary that they might be leading us to ineffective of down right unhelpful responses.

“Pure reason can also be a scary, bad thing that must be tempered by prosocial emotions. That is something that Bloom and his devotees just cannot seem to grasp.”

Then how come Bloom is often making the case for the correct application of emotion, compassion? You are simply making a false claim here about the position that Bloom and other hold.

“The new term that Bloom and his followers rally around is “efficient empathy,” by which they mean empathy corrected by reason.”

You have just contradicted yourself. You make out that Bloom and ‘devotees’ are all for reason and not for emotion, and then you state Blooms case where he does argue for the correct application of emotion and reason.

“But the parallel case–reason corrected by empathy–seems preposterous to them, no matter how much sound argumentation or evidence is brought to bear in the matter.”

No. That is not the case made at all. The case is that relying on empathy to such an extent that it prevents reason making a decent assessment of a good and effective response is the problem. If anything Bloom is arguing that empathy alone is the problem. He certainly isn’t making a case that reason and emotion should not be applied.

“But in my opinion, what, at bottom, makes Blooms demonization of empathy so attractive is that it gives people permission to distance themselves emotionally from the suffering of others.”

No. That’s your biased demonisation at work.

– Bloom says we need the balance of emoting and reason, and that letting emotion dictate action without the correction of reason is not effective towards the goals an emapathetic compassionate person would want.
– We ‘devotees’ (i.e. those that hear and read Bloom saying what he says he says) agree.
– You say Bloom and his ‘devotees’ are selfish reason-only mechanoids that want nothing of emotion so that we can bomb people at altituted.

Who’s lost the plot here?


The doctored comment by Cummins

In his New Yorker article, Bloom claimed that empathy is “parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate” and that “We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it”, and “…empathy will have to yield to reason if humanity is to have a future.”

To defend this view, he cherry picks instances in which empathy, untempered by reason, leads us to behave less than optimally in our desire to do good, neatly side-stepping instances in which the opposite is also true—reason untempered by empathy has led to atrocities. Yet his supporters claim that he is being misunderstood, so the evidence “doesn’t count’ or instead “proves his point.” It isn’t reasoning that leads to atrocities, they argue, but imperialism or greed.

Bloom and his followers categorically reject the view that empathy must correct reason as much as reason must correct empathy. As such luminaries as Daniel Kahneman have pointed out, human reasoning is also parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. People rely on their ability to reason in order to justify and rationalize bad actions. When it comes to ethics and morality, reason must be tempered by prosocial emotions. That is something that Bloom and his followers just cannot seem to grasp. They insist that the role of reason is to “correct” empathy’s excesses.


So, I tried again, responding to the doctored comment

Bloom’s use of ‘yield’ in this context means that reason must be applied to the situation to which empathy has drawn our attention; that empathy must not be left to be the guide to a response.

Bloom explains this clearly enough and often enough – but here’s an example in the Boston Review: [https://bostonreview.net/forum/paul-bloom-against-empathy]

“And so I’ve learned to clarify, to explain that I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.”

This makes your take on Bloom totally at odds with his actual position.

“To defend this view, he cherry picks instances in which empathy, untempered by reason, leads us to behave less than optimally in our desire to do good …”

Well yes, that’s the point. You use the pejorative term ‘cherry pick’, but it’s quite inappropriate here. He isn’t saying that all cases of empathy alone will lead to bad outcomes, but that they do often enough to be problematic.

“… neatly side-stepping instances in which the opposite is also true—reason untempered by empathy has led to atrocities.”

Total straw man. Give one instance where Bloom says we should not use empathy at all?

Further more, the implication of this statement, that Bloom might suggest we use reason alone with no emotion, is totally misrepresentative – so no matter how much he has “learned to clarify … not against compassion, kindness, love”.

“Bloom and his followers categorically reject the view that empathy must correct reason as much as reason must correct empathy.”

Empathy cannot correct reason. It can prompt for reason – but then Bloom’s case is that it’s too often not very good at doing that. You even tacitly agree he has selected (pejorative ‘cherry picked’) cases that show that. Your point that often bad reason is used is not a case for empathy but a case for better reason. Inappropriate empathy and poorly applied reason seem likely to produce bad outcomes.

“As such luminaries as Daniel Kahneman have pointed out, human reasoning is also parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate.”

Of course it can be. But bad reasoning will not be corrected by empathy. Better reasoning is required for that. Empathy might trigger someone who is reasoning badly – “Muslims are evil. Just look at ISIS.” – to ask themselves if all Muslims are evil? It prompts reason; but must be answered by investigation, reason, evidence. Simply upping the empathy for a particular Muslim could just as easily mistakenly lead one to think the victim Muslim is an exception. For example, there’s a lot of empathy for the Kurds as they fight the good fight against ISIS; but that empathy can just as easily lead one to ignore problems that occur within the Kurdish Islamic community. Empathy for the Palestinians leads many to pretty much ignore, and in some cases actually support Hamas, which has as part of its constitution the desire to wipe Jews off the face of the earth. There are many examples of where excessive empathy for one group blind you to vi time of that group.

“People rely on their ability to reason in order to justify and rationalize bad actions.”

Yes, some do, sometimes. In a similar way I suggest you’re rationalising your poor critique of Bloom as if you are making a good case against his thesis, when it’s clear from this piece and the comments that you are rationalising your moralistic position that demonises Bloom and his ‘devotees’.

“When it comes to ethics and morality, reason must be tempered by prosocial emotions.”

I still think you’re missing the point. Our prosocial emotions drive our desires to act. reason should be applied to do it wisely. Wisdom isn’t reacting instinctively.

“That is something that Bloom and his followers just cannot seem to grasp.”

This is downright false. We grasp it. And see problems when empathy specifically interferes with or overpowers reason. And with Bloom spelling out, often, that other prosocial emotions are fine and dandy, you still totally misrepresent his thesis, and more egregiously, his morality.


A parting comment from Cummins, and comments are closed

Ronnie,

Your other comments were removed because they, like this one, constituted hysterical rants rather than respectful and reasoned discussion. This is a monitored blog, and comments (either pro or con) must satisfy a standard of quality.

I am going to let your current comment stand because it essentially proves my point: Human reasoning often falls short of normative standards.

You, like Bloom, insist that empathy (and other prosocial emotions) must be corrected by reason. You reject the claim that reasoning, faulty as it often is, must often also be corrected by prosocial emotion in matters of morality and ethics.

You offer no evidence or coherent argument to reject this claim. Instead, you offer vehemence, name-calling, and inappropriately applied logical terms (such as the inappropriate accusation of my having appealed to the straw man fallacy).

You insist that such a claim is “downright false”, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Again, no proof of its falsity other than that it just seems wrong to you and Bloom’s position just seems right. If your comment were submitted as an essay in a philosophy course or a psychology course on reasoning, it would garner a failing grade.

I suggest you read my more recent blog on what is wrong with Bloom’s position: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/good-thinking/201603/the-claim-empathy-makes-the-worl…

3 thoughts on “Paul Bloom Misrepresented

  1. s klein

    Cummins just did the same to me for questioning her “mindless” parroting of psychological bromides. Her approach — do not address the issues; rather note that I rant, am unknowledgable, etc.

    Maybe I do rant — but it is respec to her avoidance of serious discourse in favor of spouting platitudes and then attempting to educate me.

    Our discussion is at psychology today (that esteemed publication) and concerns psychological science. i do not know or care if you share my concerns — but it is entertaining to see her again in action.

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