In recent weeks, Israeli bombs have rained down on Gaza, and images of the resulting death and destruction have inflamed world opinion. Never mind that the government in Gaza is run by Hamas, an avowedly genocidal organization that uses its own civilians as human shields. Nor does it matter that some of this carnage seems to have been caused by Hamas’s own rockets gone astray. To bear witness to the suffering of the Palestinian people is all: the sight of a lifeless girl pulled from the rubble, her inconsolable parents, the spokesman for UNRWA breaking down in sobs during an interview—every image presents its own moral imperative and settles the case. Israel stands convicted of evil.

It’s not often that one comes across a scientific argument that could help resolve moral and political emergencies of this kind—much less one that is deeply counterintuitive and yet easily understood. In his provocative article, Paul Bloom has produced such an argument.

Bloom’s thesis is that emotional empathy, the ability to identify with others and “feel their pain,” is generally a poor guide for ethical behavior. As he acknowledges, many will find this idea grotesque—how could sharing another’s pain be anything less than a virtue? Indeed, many readers will feel that their very humanity depends on the strength of their emotion when witnessing suffering of the sort on display in Gaza. To question the merits of empathy is to question love, compassion, and basic human decency.

However, Bloom likens empathy to anger, and the comparison is remarkably astute. We want to be able to feel anger when circumstances warrant it, but then we want to stop feeling it the moment it is no longer useful. A person who is unable to feel anger would be, as Bloom says, “the perfect victim,” but feeling too much of it reliably leads to misery and chaos. Generally speaking, to have one’s moral judgment colored by anger is to have it clouded. Bloom argues that empathy is like anger in this respect, and I am convinced that he is right.

One commentator on the war in Gaza unwittingly echoed Bloom’s thesis when he responded to those condemning Israel by saying, “Dead babies are not an argument.” It was a brave and arresting statement that requires some unpacking. He surely did not mean to minimize the suffering of the Palestinians nor the horror concealed by the phrase “collateral damage.” But the truth is that noncombatants die in every war, however just. In fact, one finds dead babies in many other circumstances—and they are rarely, if ever, the only consideration.

For instance, more than 30,000 people die in traffic accidents in the United States each year, and many more are grievously injured. Much of this death and suffering is inflicted upon helpless children. But when was the last time you saw an image of parents howling with grief over the body of their son or daughter killed in a car crash? Children are killed and disfigured on our roads every day, and every day we fail to stop the slaughter. Yet a simple solution exists: we need only set the maximum speed limit on our roads at fifteen miles per hour. Why don’t we do this? The answer could hardly be more callous, and it surely has nothing to do with self-defense or any other existential concern (as it does in the case of Israel). We simply prefer to drive faster than that. Indeed, to drive so safely as to ensure the lives of all our children would be to guarantee inefficiency and boredom. Apparently, we judge these evils to be worse than some number of dead babies.

To be moved to action merely by empathy is to lurch blindly toward who knows what. The harrowing images coming out Gaza are not the whole story, and they manipulate world opinion in ways that few people seem willing to acknowledge. I am making no claims about the ethical or strategic necessity of Israel’s actions. I am simply saying that emotional arousal over the plight of the Palestinians offers little insight. Bloom has finally given us an argument for why wisdom and compassion must apply the brakes to empathy so that we can think clearly about decisions that affect the lives of millions.

August 27, 2014