I won’t comment directly on this essay right now — I have some issues with it, but not with the general skepticism of empathy as a framework for social action — but it does give me an opportunity to re-link this post, sparked from Frank Kogan’s commentary on a 2012 NY Times op-ed, which outlines my Uncanny Valley of Empathy, a conceptual framework I find myself thinking about a lot, and should probably write something more “official” about.
Not on board with the Boston Review piece, what I read of it. Couldn’t follow its logic, which I don’t think is a lack of empathy on my part, just bad reasoning on Bloom’s. “Empathy” is the name of a big blobby grab-bag of concepts and quasi-concepts, anyway. Bloom seemed to be picking only the dumber and more debilitating forms of “empathy” to oppose. And I think he went over into having not much of an idea himself what other people mean by the word. For instance, feeling empathy for someone who’s shivering and starving doesn’t require you to be shivering and starving at the very moment you’re trying to help the person, or for that matter to ever have been shivering and starving to the extent that the other person is. It’s actually, in contrast to this, having a good idea of how your actions will affect that person. Right? And to say that in conducting foreign policy we shouldn’t limit our kindness to those we feel empathy for is no argument whatsoever against trying to expand our knowledge and empathy so as to understand people we hadn’t previously understood or felt empathy for. It’s as if he’s saying, “Because we don’t generally understand why people are drawn to ISIS, we shouldn’t try to understand why people are drawn to ISIS,” Which isn’t what he intends, but then I don’t think he’s given enough thought to his wording to know what his ideas are.
Going back to my post, which I’d completely forgotten, I’m arguing that we can’t divorce empathy from knowledge, that empathy without knowledge isn’t empathy. As for your “uncanny valley” idea, I like it. But of course, that we might lose our easy compassion for someone once we know her better isn’t an argument against getting to know her better. Losing our easy compassion isn’t necessarily a bad result, and isn’t necessarily going to make our allotment of charity etc. less effective.
Regarding your phrase “general skepticism of empathy as a framework for social action,” what if you were to replace the word “empathy” with “knowledge”? But are knowledge and empathy “frameworks” for action? “Framework” is a vague term. Hope you do expand your post into something more “official.”