Friday, May 05, 2017


Jonah Goldberg has been doing some reading -- specifically, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, a book by a Yale psychologist named Paul Bloom. Goldberg calls the book "brave and brilliant," and after reading it, he's certain that that Jimmy Kimmel monologue about health insurance was bad for America, and that Kimmel's appeal to the nation was not unlike emotional appeals made by Hitler.

No, really.

Goldberg writes:
Just over 14 years ago, my daughter almost died minutes before entering the world. My wife had to have an emergency C-section. The whole thing was harrowing. Someday I’ll tell the whole story. But because of that experience, and simply because I am a father, I could empathize with late-night host Jimmy Kimmel’s story about his son’s birth....

Empathy is different than sympathy or compassion. Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone. Compassion is when you do something about it....

Bloom, a liberal transplant from Canada, distrusts empathy because empathy is like a drug. It distorts our perspective, causing us to get all worked up about an individual or group. He compares it to a spotlight that illuminates a specific person or group, plunging everything and everyone else into darkness.

“When some people think about empathy, they think about kindness. I think about war,” Bloom writes. He’s got a point....

Adolf Hitler was a master of empathy — for ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, Austria, and elsewhere. The cause of nationalist empathy for the German tribe triggered profound moral blindness for the plight, and even the humanity, of Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs.
So, um ... Adolf Hitler's racist appeals are like Jimmy Kimmel's monologue about his son's illness? I'd like to think that isn't what Goldberg's is saying, but it sure seems as if it is.
Human beings are naturally inclined to sympathize and empathize with people like them. There has never been a society where people didn’t give priority to helping family and friends over strangers. This tends to blind us “to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with,” writes Bloom. “Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism.”
But Kimmel was telling us to have compassion for people who aren't like him. He knows that we understand how well off he is. He knows that we realize he has good access to health care. He said that health care for a dying child ought to be accessible (and, by implication, affordable) for people who aren't TV stars. Presumably, quite a few of these people won't be white urban coast-dwellers, like Kimmel. This is the exact opposite of empathy for people like us, unless you define "people like us" as "all Americans" or "all American children." (Aren't we, as Americans, supposed to do right by our fellow citizens?)

I haven't read Bloom's book, and I've only started dipping into its arguments (you can read positive reviews of his book here and here). My impression is that he's trying to define two watertight categories -- irrational empathy and rational compassion -- when there is, in fact, considerable overlap between the two. In any case, one warning, taken from his own writing, would seem not to apply in the present circumstance:
... our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside. Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one.... Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of vaccinating children and responding to climate change. These acts impose costs on real people in the here and now for the sake of abstract future benefits, so tackling them may require overriding empathetic responses that favor the comfort and well being of individuals today.
Kimmel wasn't asking us to save his child. Calling for the prevention of a hundred deaths was precisely what he was doing. Telling us to consider abstract future benefits rather than present-day comforts is also precisely what he was doing -- he was saying that millions of people should not be deprived of health insurance they'll need in the future just so we can now pocket a tax cut.

Goldberg, meanwhile, uses Bloom's thesis to ride a hobby horse or two. He quotes Bloom:
“Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism.”
Then he writes:
Look at the intractable debate over the phrase “black lives matter.” The slogan itself is a kind of spotlight, argue supporters, highlighting the legitimate complaints of African Americans. But it also blinds them to why others respond to the term by saying “all lives matter.”
But the point of the "black lives matter" argument is to persuade those who aren't black that black people are fully human and deserve to have their concerns taken seriously. It's an attempt to talk people out of tribalism. Those who reject the phrase "all lives matter" are accusing some -- most? -- non-black people of not believing that, and with good reason given the widespread indifference to the fate of black people. They're not arguing that other lives don't matter.

Ultimately, Goldberg writes this:
Which brings me back to Jimmy Kimmel. His story about his son aroused a riot of empathy across the nation. And he used that response to make an argument about health-care policy that was largely devoid of any consideration of the facts, trade-offs, or costs of what is the best way to deal with people, including babies, who have pre-existing medical conditions.
He was arguing that a rich country ought to find a way to work through the facts, trade-offs, and costs in order to provide affordable health care for all children. Given the fact that this has been done in all other First World countries, that's not unreasonable.
He was largely wrong on the facts: Babies with dire medical conditions are covered by their parents’ insurance, and when their parents are uninsured, doctors don’t just let the baby die on the table.
No, but medical providers do send bills after the fact, and those bills have often bankrupted families. And now, under Trumpcare, a near-death experience in infancy would be a preexisting condition for life.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t inequities in the system or that the current health-care regime is anywhere close to perfect. But it is very difficult to have a rational discussion about the trade-offs inherent to any health-care system — including socialized medicine — when all anyone can think about is the ordeal of a newborn baby and his loving parents.
Again: This was only partly about Kimmel and his baby. It was about all the babies who aren't Kimmel's. How hard is that to understand?

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