On Empathy

 

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 Religion & Philosophy
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Get your first month free.

There are 25 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Kephalithos: Whatever your neighbor’s teenage daughter may say, empathy is not a virtue.

    Just starting the second paragraph and I already like this.

    • #1
  2. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Kephalithos: …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.

    The most recent evolution of these creatures, as witnessed in comment sections under sufficiently woke posts on my company’s home page, are more emboldened masses of emotional gelatin demanding that anyone without their empathy turned up to eleven needs to shut up, sit down, and just listen. (By the way, later this decade, when your plane is going down due to a long ago solvable design flaw, just remember that the hotshot, young, woke, lead designer was insufficiently experienced but very, very, empathetic around the cubicle farm. But I digress.)

    Kephalithos: …those who, far from wanting or experiencing empathy, merely prey upon the empathetic in their quest for power, pleasure, and nihilistic release.

    I can see her face now.

    • #2
  3. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    When did empathy replace sympathy?

    You never hear about sympathy anymore. I’ve lots of sympathy for all sorts of people but I’m the first to admit I can’t empathise with more than a few. 

    • #3
  4. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    When did empathy replace sympathy?

    You never hear about sympathy anymore. I’ve lots of sympathy for all sorts of people but I’m the first to admit I can’t empathise with more than a few.

    Right about here:

    Obama's 'empathy' won't stop genocide - JNS.org

    • #4
  5. Kephalithos Member
    Kephalithos
    @Kephalithos

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment): When did empathy replace sympathy?

    You never hear about sympathy anymore. I’ve lots of sympathy for all sorts of people but I’m the first to admit I can’t empathise with more than a few.

    That’s a fascinating question.

    It’s hard to disentangle the two concepts, but, as far as I know, the word “sympathy” describes an ability to relate to a person’s situation and circumstances, whereas “empathy” describes an ability to relate to a person’s emotional state. Sympathy is more abstract and intellectual, whereas empathy is more emotional.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but the shift from sympathy to empathy might track with the growing importance of emotivism. Feelings, feelings, feelings! It’s all about feelings nowadays.

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Empathy is (rightly) getting a bad rap. When the Torah says that we care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, we may not initially feel empathy, but we might through our actions. You don’t need to feel empathy to behave properly.

    At the same time, empathy properly experienced and followed requires a level of maturity and discernment. We don’t experience it with everyone, and shouldn’t. Empathy can’t be required, because each of us experiences it in different situations and to different degrees. At the same time, if we don’t have empathy, it is difficult to relate to others in any kind of sincere way; it is our empathy, that allows us to connect with others (such as friends and family, for starters) at more than a superficial level.

    So to be a good human being, we are called to act as if we empathize with those who need our help, and who are deserving of it. That is all we are called to do.

    Good post!

    • #6
  7. Addiction Is A Choice Member
    Addiction Is A Choice
    @AddictionIsAChoice

    If their activities and policies are any guide, they call for empathy because they themselves have none.

    • #7
  8. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    philo (View Comment):

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    When did empathy replace sympathy?

    You never hear about sympathy anymore. I’ve lots of sympathy for all sorts of people but I’m the first to admit I can’t empathise with more than a few.

    Right about here:

    Obama's 'empathy' won't stop genocide - JNS.org

    What was that about?

    • #8
  9. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    philo (View Comment):

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    When did empathy replace sympathy?

    You never hear about sympathy anymore. I’ve lots of sympathy for all sorts of people but I’m the first to admit I can’t empathise with more than a few.

    Right about here:

    Obama's 'empathy' won't stop genocide - JNS.org

    What was that about?

    It was more the person than that particular event. 

    • #9
  10. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    I think Kant agrees about John.

    • #10
  11. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Good essay.

    Empathy at its best helps you remember the Golden Rule.

    I think you nailed empathy at its worst.

    • #11
  12. lowtech redneck Coolidge
    lowtech redneck
    @lowtech redneck

    All things in moderation.

    Empathy is much more useful in terms of avoiding becoming a bad person* than it is in being a decent person.

    *on a somewhat tangential note, ‘who you are in the dark’ is important, but ‘who you are in a crowd with a spotlight shining on you’ is just as important, as our recent cultural dystopia reveals in stark relief-in other words, moral courage is just as important as morality. Unfortunately, too many can’t tell the difference between that and moral narcissism.

    • #12
  13. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Empathy at its best helps you remember the Golden Rule.

    I thought of this because I was pretty sure “empathy” was one of the available translations for the virtue of in Confucianism, which also has rather a lot to do with the Golden Rule.

    But then–仁 can also be translated as “benevolence,” “humaneness,” “humanity,” “kindness,” or “perfect virtue.” Best not overemphasize empathy.

    • #13
  14. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    There was a Star Trek episode that highlighted the dilemma of empathy. There was a character who was an “empath” who deeply, viscerally, felt the emotions of each person with whom she came in contact. A real “empath” when faced when two persons in opposition to each other and feeling deeply, viscerally what each feels would become catatonic — unable to do anything in the presence of intense oppositional feelings and reasoning (with whom the empath would have to fully agree).

    So empathy can be overdone and may not even be helpful to the person for whom you have empathy. Detachment is called for with enough insight into how the person(s) with whom you are dealing feel and think.

    • #14
  15. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Rodin (View Comment):

    There was a Star Trek episode that highlighted the dilemma of empathy. There was a character who was an “empath” who deeply, viscerally, felt the emotions of each person with whom she came in contact. A real “empath” when faced when two persons in opposition to each other and feeling deeply, viscerally what each feels would become catatonic — unable to do anything in the presence of intense oppositional feelings and reasoning (with whom the empath would have to fully agree).

    So empathy can be overdone and may not even be helpful to the person for whom you have empathy. Detachment is called for with enough insight into how the person(s) with whom you are dealing feel and think.

    Yes. A judge can have empathy for a convict, that’s the beginning of mercy. But do we then want to take away all law and justice?

    • #15
  16. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Rodin (View Comment):

    There was a Star Trek episode that highlighted the dilemma of empathy. There was a character who was an “empath” who deeply, viscerally, felt the emotions of each person with whom she came in contact. A real “empath” when faced when two persons in opposition to each other and feeling deeply, viscerally what each feels would become catatonic — unable to do anything in the presence of intense oppositional feelings and reasoning (with whom the empath would have to fully agree).

    So empathy can be overdone and may not even be helpful to the person for whom you have empathy. Detachment is called for with enough insight into how the person(s) with whom you are dealing feel and think.

    Yes. A judge can have empathy for a convict, that’s the beginning of mercy. But do we then want to take away all law and justice?

    I think empathy is a very special quality, and balances our desire to be overly strict. I guess I’d think of empathy as it relates to compassion. Compassion is also important, but ultimately we need to take a law-abiding society into consideration. Balancing compassion and justice can be a tough road, and I wouldn’t want to be the one to do it. But those who do it well will usually earn our appreciation.

    • #16
  17. Cliff Hadley Thatcher
    Cliff Hadley
    @CliffHadley

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    When did empathy replace sympathy?

    For me it never did. Sympathy is real, empathy is suspect.

    • #17
  18. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    philo (View Comment):

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    When did empathy replace sympathy?

    You never hear about sympathy anymore. I’ve lots of sympathy for all sorts of people but I’m the first to admit I can’t empathise with more than a few.

    Right about here:

    Obama's 'empathy' won't stop genocide - JNS.org

    What was that about?

    It was in response to the terrorist group Boko Haram capturing a bunch of school girls:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chibok_schoolgirls_kidnapping

    The hashtag was totally useless and accomplished nothing. So, yeah, a bunch of pretend empathy. The equivalent of:

    • #18
  19. I. M. Fine Coolidge
    I. M. Fine
    @IMFine

    I currently teach classes in communication studies to college students. In our unit on listening, one of the four types of listening we study is empathic listening(The other three types are appreciative [listening for pleasure], comprehensive [listening for understanding] and critical [listening to render a decision].)

    Empathic listening is defined as: “the practice of being attentive and responsive to others’ input during conversation.” One main quality of empathic listening is giving support and encouragement. Listening empathically entails making an emotional connection with the other person and finding similarities between their experience and your own so you can give a more heartfelt response.

    And there’s the rub. It never ends with the now-empty-trope “I feel your pain.” The minute you “find similarities” between your experience and theirs, their experience tends to lose its unique individuality and becomes a variation of your experience. And although every counseling expert will tell you to not give advice, your response always becomes your story of how you dealt with your similar situation.

    My students often share they don’t like hearing a friend say “I know how you feel” because that means the rest of the conversation will now become about the other person. What the person in pain is really after is some good old-fashioned sympathy and a simple “I’m sorry.”

    Great post. Important points raised!

    • #19
  20. SpiritO'78 Member
    SpiritO'78
    @SpiritO78

    Thanks for this post. I’ve noticed the word “empathy” being used in place of sympathy as well. I agree with your rational that it leads to emotivism, which I’ve never heard of before. You laid out a good case though. 

    • #20
  21. Old Bathos Moderator
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    I once knew a man I was convinced was a sociopath but I trusted him more than I would most people. He was a successful professional man, former military with a certain coldness and often slightly off conversational manner. I came to realize that he did not rely on the kinds of feelings and instinctive cues that most of us use when routinely dealing with other people because he probably did not have them. But he was (a) highly intelligent and (b) had a code. More than just the 10 Commandments and rules of politeness, he tried to hold himself to high standards across the board very consciously. But you could see the wheels turning and the effort required. Odd fellow but noble.

    If we are lucky, we grew up with healthy adult examples such that much of our moral and aesthetic formation seems almost instinctual. A wise, highly educated old priest with degrees in moral theology and philosophy from prestigious European universities once told me that his first moral guide was still whether this was something his parents and siblings would approve of or do themselves. When feelings arise on the basis of and within the context of sound principles, empathy and feelings can be a reliable first response moral guide.

    But feelings in a disordered, narcissistic mess of a life can be worse than useless. If a seemingly ennobling use of emotion is offered as evidence justification for the predominance of feelings as a moral guide, then coherent moral reasoning is lost.

    • #21
  22. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I once knew a man I was convinced was a sociopath but I trusted him more than I would most people. He was a successful professional man, former military with a certain coldness and often slightly off conversational manner. I came to realize that he did not rely on the kinds of feelings and instinctive cues that most of us use when routinely dealing with other people because he probably did not have them. But he was (a) highly intelligent and (b) had a code. More than just the 10 Commandments and rules of politeness, he tried to hold himself to high standards across the board very consciously. But you could see the wheels turning and the effort required. Odd fellow but noble.

    If we are lucky, we grew up with healthy adult examples such that much of our moral and aesthetic formation seems almost instinctual. A wise, highly educated old priest with degrees in moral theology and philosophy from prestigious European universities once told me that his first moral guide was still whether this was something his parents and siblings would approve of or do themselves. When feelings arise on the basis of and within the context of sound principles, empathy and feelings can be a reliable first response moral guide.

    But feelings in a disordered, narcissistic mess of a life can be worse than useless. If a seemingly ennobling use of emotion is offered as evidence justification for the predominance of feelings as a moral guide, then coherent moral reasoning is lost.

    I believe that people on the Asperger’s spectrum have difficulty experiencing empathy. They can learn to behave empathically (as you describe), but it’s not instinctual. Over time, they may begin to feel the corresponding emotion, but not necessarily.

    • #22
  23. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Empathy is easily faked – performative is the current word. But even real empathy is of no use to a person in pain unless it comes from someone close to them. There is no healing quality to #metoo and aggregated ‘likes’ on Facebook. Vindication, maybe, but not healing. 

     

    • #23
  24. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Rodin (View Comment):
    There was a Star Trek episode that highlighted the dilemma of empathy. There was a character who was an “empath” who deeply, viscerally, felt the emotions of each person with whom she came in contact. A real “empath” when faced when two persons in opposition to each other and feeling deeply, viscerally what each feels would become catatonic — unable to do anything in the presence of intense oppositional feelings and reasoning (with whom the empath would have to fully agree).

    In Next Generation, the empath was a dude he became BFF’s with a living spaceship and only had to deal with one calm mind. 

    • #24
  25. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I once knew a man I was convinced was a sociopath but I trusted him more than I would most people. He was a successful professional man, former military with a certain coldness and often slightly off conversational manner. I came to realize that he did not rely on the kinds of feelings and instinctive cues that most of us use when routinely dealing with other people because he probably did not have them. But he was (a) highly intelligent and (b) had a code. More than just the 10 Commandments and rules of politeness, he tried to hold himself to high standards across the board very consciously. But you could see the wheels turning and the effort required. Odd fellow but noble.

    If we are lucky, we grew up with healthy adult examples such that much of our moral and aesthetic formation seems almost instinctual. A wise, highly educated old priest with degrees in moral theology and philosophy from prestigious European universities once told me that his first moral guide was still whether this was something his parents and siblings would approve of or do themselves. When feelings arise on the basis of and within the context of sound principles, empathy and feelings can be a reliable first response moral guide.

    But feelings in a disordered, narcissistic mess of a life can be worse than useless. If a seemingly ennobling use of emotion is offered as evidence justification for the predominance of feelings as a moral guide, then coherent moral reasoning is lost.

    I believe that people on the Asperger’s spectrum have difficulty experiencing empathy. They can learn to behave empathically (as you describe), but it’s not instinctual. Over time, they may begin to feel the corresponding emotion, but not necessarily.

    Many get better at faking. However, autistic people often care even if they don’t understand. I don’t understand what it’s like to lose a child, be gay or have menstrual cramps but I can care about the suffering of those I can’t understand. Sociopaths are often way worse than autistics because many sociopaths don’t care. 

    Are you sure this intelligent man wasn’t a high functioning autistic? (I agree with Susan Qinn and I suggest that a high-functioning autistic is better called Aspergers.) People with aspergers are often confused with sociopaths but they are quite different. 

    • #25