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If I were a drinking man, I’d play a drinking game: Open a dating app, the comments section of a Washington Post article, a feminist blog, or any other place where people of a left-wing persuasion congregate, and take a shot every time someone writes a paean to empathy.
Whatever your neighbor’s teenage daughter may say, empathy is not a virtue. Empathy is a useful and morally neutral psychological phenomenon, one which might underlie certain virtues, but one which is not itself sufficient as the basis for any coherent ethical system.* The world would not ipso facto become a better place if “everyone had more empathy.” On the contrary, it might degenerate into some version of what we see now: quivering masses of emotional gelatin demanding therapeutic self-affirmation in the form of safe spaces and coloring books; a people paralyzed in unending anguish merely because somewhere, someone is suffering. As a moral principle, empathy is self-defeating. Too often, appealing to the “capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference” is akin to saying, “Every action or belief is legitimate from the point of view of the person who experiences it, and therefore every action or belief is legitimate.” Empathy easily descends into excuse-making. (Take the canonical example of an abused girlfriend: Is she really better off for “showing empathy” to her abuser?) Once empathy is removed from the psychological realm and introduced to the ethical one, it negates the very purpose of ethics, which is to establish a series of principles by which actions can be judged.
Empathy becomes, for modern social slobberers (as Fulton Sheen might call them), a gateway drug to emotivism, the position famously described by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue. Emotivism, argues MacIntyre, is the belief that all moral judgments are little more than expressions of personal preference. It is the way of thinking Lewis pillories in The Abolition of Man: the pretense that “X is wrong” really means “I dislike X” or “X causes unpleasant emotions in me.” But emotivism, in its purest form, cannot survive for long, because man is a social and moral creature, and social and moral creatures need shared ethical systems if they are to live together. People in 2020 don’t wander around saying, “You’d better do what I say, because I say so!” Instead, they make appeals to empathy, sympathy, compassion, and caring: “If you love me, you’ll give in to my demands. You’ll use my preferred pronouns. You’ll become my political ally.” They accept a circumscribed version of emotivism — one whose principle is that all self-asserted existential claims are to be honored. To be a good person, in this view, is to accept and affirm another for who he claims to be, especially if who he claims to be runs contrary to traditional morality.
This is a dangerous situation. Like the weak-willed person who becomes captive to her boyfriend-abuser, a civilization built on emotivist principles is bound to become captive to its worst elements: those who, far from wanting or experiencing empathy, merely prey upon the empathetic in their quest for power, pleasure, and nihilistic release. The Ted Wheelers of the world, not wicked men, but weak men, would do well to grow spines. But I don’t expect them to do so.
* It’s not even clear whether empathy is strictly necessary to the formation of virtue. Suppose John is a psychopath. John has no concept of empathy — no natural ability whatsoever to relate to other humans in that characteristically human way. But John decides, for whatever reason, to live according to commonly accepted moral principles. It is hard for him, but he manages to pass for a psychologically normal person. He marries, convinces his wife that he loves her, convinces his children that he loves them, dies, and is fondly eulogized by his friends and family, all of whom are unaware of his mental quirks. Is John a good person? The “I’m good because I feel others’ pain” contingent might struggle to answer the question. I’d say yes.Published in