Against Empathy | Boston Review

Most people see the benefits of empathy as too obvious to require justification. This is a mistake.

When asked what I am working on, I often say I am writing a book about empathy. People tend to smile and nod, and then I add, “I’m against it.” This usually gets an uncomfortable laugh.

This reaction surprised me at first, but I’ve come to realize that taking a position against empathy is like announcing that you hate kittens—a statement so outlandish it can only be a joke. 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.


With responses from

  • Peter Singer
  • Jack W. Berry, Lynn E. O’Connor
  • Marianne LaFrance
  • Nomy Arpaly
  • Christine Montross
  • Barbara H. Fried
  • Leslie Jamison
  • Leonardo Christov-Moore, Marco Iacoboni
  • Simon Baron-Cohen
  • Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig
  • Sam Harris
  • Jesse Prinz