The Empathy Delusion

This piece argues that we do not have much empathy, and that even if we had more it would still be a very imperfect engine of moral or ethical behaviour.

Empathy is promoted as the new magic cure to society’s problems. One can see why. In our time, the biggest bogeymen are various forms of selfishness seen as discrimination, alienation, and greed. It is easy to imagine that empathy – understanding  and sharing the feelings and views of Others – would be good ammunition  against them. By a little extension,  empathy seems like a key ingredient in liberalism, which is today’s religion.

Liberals tend to  make a comfortable mush of ideas which are best, actually, differentiated from each  other. Leaving aside empathy for a moment, other core liberal traits are fancied to be sympathy and compassion.  The first, sympathy, is a matter of fellow-feeling with the Other. It involves breaking down the barriers between oneself and the Other. It implies  that one abandons some of one’s  propensity to put oneself at the centre of the universe. Sympathy makes selfishness difficult. The second, compassion, is a special sort of sympathy which involves an element of pity. The compassionate person feels positively compelled to help the Other  who has evoked  the emotion. This pair of understandings and feelings do indeed  tend to produce that liberal prize, tender-heartedness.

When we come to defining empathy, we seem to be stuck with a confusion.

Dictionaries say that it  consists in understanding  and sharing in the inner life of Others. A little thought shows us the difficulty. I posit that it is sort of alright to be sloppy about sympathy and compassion, but that  empathy demands closer definition and unpicking. Having insight into the interiority of Other people is doubtless a valuable skill, but in practice our empathic understanding is importantly limited. Other people tend to remain something of a mystery. What is more, the idea of sharing the inner life of another is fraught with difficulty. One may go in for a good deal of imaginary fellow-feeling, but realise that one may well have imagined wrongly, or even fantastically. Besides, even with the gift of empathy, one may have very little idea how one should help or guide the Other, just as we might modestly recognise that we are not especially brilliant at legislating for our own lives either.

It seems clear that empathy might or might not be a good thing, but humans in practice are not brilliant at either understanding or sharing in the interiority of Others. True, some people seem to quite good at the understanding part, and providing they recognise the limits of this gift, may put it to quite good purpose.  Sometimes the people with a certain gift for understanding Others are also rather gifted in the chameleon quality of imaginatively inhabiting the Other. But, to put it crudely, “People people” may often be kidding themselves. Indeed some of them may be extrapolating from their own self to that of the Other. It is always worth remembering that what looks like empathy may contradictorily be mere solipsism.

To some extent, we are quite possibly condemned if not to solipsism then at least to selfishness. One may empathise to one heart’s content, and hold empathetic thoughts dear, but ultimately one’s impulses and actions, even highly moral ones, are one’s own. One may believe one has some grasp of another’s thoughts and feelings, and be moved by them. But that doesn’t mean that one is then being altruistic in offering the Other some service or other. Every human action may merely be a species of selfishness, however refined, or disguised. In short, acting empathically (affective empathy) may be a contradiction in terms.

We need now to square some of these thoughts with the philosophy, ethics, morals and political science which have been built on the rather wobbly empathic foundations.

It seems fair enough to say that much Enlightenment moral thought, that of Adam Smith and J S Mill, say, does indeed put empathy centre stage. That generation were determind not to be superstitious and to be scientific. They were seized of something like a new materialism. They saw, roughly put, that all humans are constituted in much the  same  way. Humans have similar responses: what one thinks and feels, another person probably similarly thinks and feels. Persons do indeed often “read” each  other fairly well: our lives are in important measure a matter of accumulating evidence about how we all behave, from which we can wonder how others think or feel.

This is a levelling and elevating experience. The more one ponders the essentially mechanical nature of man, and the  more one sees the Other as like oneself, the less one feels able to condemn anyone, or to detatch oneself from valuing everone more or less equally, at least in theory.

Thus empathy seems to be a ready engine of morality. After all, one problem with morals is that we have no obvious way of persuading anyone to want to be moral. Bigging-up empathy might be a sort of backdoor solution: one might get amoral people to take an interest in the interiority of Others, almost as a matter of curiosity, and – once they were hooked – show them the new obligations to Others which one hopes they began to see and feel. Indeed, much moral education proceeds along these lines. “Put yourself in his shoes”, “Would you like that if it was happening to you?”, and so on. Even liberal intellectual precepts flow well from empathy: seeing the other person’s point of view is vital in argument.

Actually, though, there are very big difficulties with empathy’s role in morality, and it makes little difference how empathic one believes oneself or others to be.

One might very well have excellent empathic understanding of another person and decide that one does not like what one sees, and resist sharing in it.

Alternatively, one may come – on the basis of one’s empathic understanding – to the conclusion that the Other needs chastising, or instruction, or condemnation, or some other treatment that the Other in question resists or resents. Indeed empathy might make one see past – to deny or reverse – one’s initial sympathy with and compassion for an Other. This might be a highly moral set of responses.

It it may not be very tender: tough love might be just the ticket.

Morality is by definition a matter of hoping for and working for the betterment of Others, and might well depend on or utilise empathy – and sympathy and compassion. But one must – as a matter of logic if not of moral failure – fall short of the disinterested altruism this notion seems to imply. People cannot treat all Others equally.

It is hard to imagine a society, however empathic, in which all persons are required to treat each other equally. At the simplest level, even an empathic, sympathetic and compassionate mother could hardly be expected to treat all babies with the consideration she is required to show her own. As much as empathy might seem to make one equally interested in all Others, it is  at least a very limited guide to many choices one has to make as between Others. How, for instance, would it help one ration a limited good or prioritise any treatment fairly? How could one punish anyone?

There are several ways of drawing comfort from our apparent failings in empathy.

One is that our new empathy  code collides against our new educated inclusiveness which extends especially to those who lack empathy. So on the one hand we argue how essential empathy is and on the other hand we argue that people who lack it are capable of adding their own distinct value.  If we rather sensibly notice the inevitable human empathic failing we will concomitantly find it easier to value those persons who conspicuously lack it.

We can also see that it was probably a mistake to build too big a part of our moral house on the foundations of empathy. At some level we care about other people, both in the particular as persons and in general as members of society. Ordering, encouraging, controlling individuals so as to conduce to their own fulfilment and their social value is not exactly a science, but it can’t merely be a matter of pretending to have looked into the souls of Others either.

Useful insights to the arguments:







Andrew Davis
"empathy seems like a key ingredient in liberalism, which is today’s religion." Is this a parody?
RDN’s reply
Thanks for your comment. No, the sentence you quote is not a parody, nor can I think of whose work it might be such. If there is something you don't like in the argument of the piece, do let me know and I will try to address it.

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Publication date

27 December 2017


Mind & body