In his new book, Evil Men, James Dawes confronts some of the worst crimes imaginable. The book is based on his interviews with convicted war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War, and is as much about the ethical challenges of his relationships with these men as it is about their past acts. In his probing of the depths of the human capacity for atrocity, Dawes also offers an altogether unique examination of the human capacity for empathy. In the piece below, Dawes responds to a recent high-profile denunciation of empathy’s devaluing of faceless suffering.
Paul Bloom’s recent New Yorker article, “The Case Against Empathy,” makes a depressing argument: empathy—our ability to feel for others—is at the heart of what it means to be a human, and empathy is bad.
Here’s the problem as Bloom sees it: we are hardwired to have empathy for people who exist and, of the people who exist, people we know. This is a big problem in and of itself. But what’s worse is that we don't experience this basic constraint on empathy as a problem. In our day-to-day, we experience it as virtue.
My empathy for my children morally improves me as a father. This is a good thing, but it gets better: the moral improvement of fatherhood leads to other moral improvements. My capacity to extend my empathy to other people’s children—by making them real in my imagination, by showing myself that they are like my children—emotionally prepares me to sacrifice my own family’s interests for other families’ interests. Again: a good thing. And again: it gets better. My experience of empathy for my children gives meaning to my life. Next to that feeling of connection, everything else feels like vanity and baubles.
Many scholars argue that the expansion of empathy is the driver of historical progress and our best hope for the future. Lynn Hunt argues that the invention of a particular kind of empathy through literature was the necessary precursor to the modern human rights movement. Jeremy Rifkin, Paul Ehrlich, and Robert Ornstein call for the development of “global” empathy.
Bloom, respectfully, disagrees. If anything, we need less empathy, not more. Empathy leads us astray. It causes us to pay special attention to what one might call narrative suffering (highly visible, attractive victims that we feel have some kind of relation to us), and thereby to ignore statistical suffering (faceless victims to whom we are not connected). We squander our attention on Baby Jessica who fell into a well (Bloom’s prime example), while ignoring all of the yet-to-exist babies who will be born into the eco-apocalypse caused by our reckless global warming. We generously donate time and money to the victims of spectacular catastrophes even when more time and money isn’t particularly helpful—as with the 2004 tsunami, a disaster for which Doctors Without Borders stopped accepting money, pleading instead for donations to less media-friendly crises. Meanwhile, we stingily withhold resources that could make critical differences for the vast population suffering from the invisible, slow tortures of poverty, violence, and disease.