Recovering Empathy

Beyond Friend/Enemy politics, where does empathy lie?

Perhaps no concept has been so thoroughly brutalized by friend/enemy politics as "Empathy."

There are two sides to this story:

  1. Faux sentimentalism designed to weaponize our desire to do good and use it for cynical political ends

  2. The wholesale rejection of "Empathy" by others in the face of this cynical sentimentalism.

Clearly we have a problem. "Empathy" has broadly degenerated in its usage. I have called for Empathy many times and noted its importance:

We must approach this issue first with humility on our own part, which means a willingness to acknowledge when and where we have gone wrong, along with a perhaps "radical" loosening of our grips on our maps. But we must also approach this issue with empathy. We must understand that yelling at others and pointing out the issues and contradictions in the worldviews of others endears us to no one, and is more likely to cause people to "turtle".

Ultimately, we may not be able to change people’s values, but we need to be able to understand why people believe certain things. “Putting yourself into someone else’s shoes” means considering what it would mean to wholeheartedly accept and endorse that person’s values, and do your best to understand how that would guide the person’s feelings and their actions.

So what is "Empathy?" Beyond the dictionary definition, what does it truly mean? Can one even truly "be empathetic?" Is that possible?

What is Empathy?

My definition is as follows:

Empathy = Being able to understand the sentiments another is feeling, most frequently via analogy.

Obviously one cannot ever literally experience what someone else is experiencing. Our individual subjectivities make it impossible for us to literally "put ourselves in someone else's shoes." And yet, there is something intuitively true about this. We can understand the difference between a friend who always seems to know exactly what we need...and someone who appears to simply have no idea what is going on.

In that sense, what makes it possible? My ability to put myself in someone else's shoes relies on analogy. Perhaps all of my grandparents are alive, but I can understand your feeling of loss via analogy (perhaps a family friend, or one of my extended family, or a pet I grew up with died). I abstract to the point of "archetypes" (for lack of a better term). I understand that you are feeling loss.I cannot experience this particular feeling of loss you are experiencing, but I can understand and look back to times when I felt loss myself. In that sense, I can feel sentiments that are akin to the sentiments you are feeling. Deeply empathetic people are those who tend to automatically feel sentiments in this way.

Of course, this requires some sense of an understanding of the other person. My relationship to my grandparents may be different than yours and so one would expect you might react differently than me.

This is Empathy. The process by which an understanding of another individuals particular character coupled with a robust ability to conceptualize analogies allows a person to understand the other individuals sentiments relating to a particular situation, even if that person has never been in such a situation themselves. It is those who are most attuned to understanding the characters of others that are most adept at Empathy.

In this sense, compassion is the most direct and honest application of empathy.

Is Empathy Necessarily Good?

No. Being able to understand others does not necessarily make you a good person. Sociopaths (or whatever the latest DSM is calling them now) tend to be quite good at understanding the sentiments of others. Their ability to manipulate others comes from their ability to understand others. In a similar way, empathy is weaponized by those with cynical ends in order to manipulate people to support them. Herein lies one of the political problems of Empathy...but not the only one.

The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons

Elaine Scarry wrote an essay titled "The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons," and while I disagree with parts of the essay and much of Scarry's Liberal principles, much of the essay remains fascinating. The central topic is the problem of the Other: How does one relate to this Other?

Scarry sees this problem as so important because it sits at the core of the injustices of our society:

The difficulty of imagining others is both the cause of, and the problem displayed by, the action of injuring."

She illustrates this through reference to the work of British novelist Thomas Hardy:

He places before our eyes the dense interior of a man or woman. He then juxtaposes this ontological robustness with the inevitable subtractions, the flattenings, the emptyings out that occur in other people's vision of the person.


Hardy maximizes the imaginary density of a person, then lets us watch the painful subtraction each undergoes as she or he comes to be perceived by others.

It is this painful subtraction that characterizes our engagement with the world around us. In other words, we cannot escape the fact that society only ever sees a miniscule set of facets of our being (if society is even perceiving those facets correctly in the first place). Those close to us engage in what one might call a restorative addition over time as they "come to know us" more fully. But even with close friendships, the difficulty of imagining others remains. Scarry notes how Sartre's study of the imagination demonstrated that, more often than not, the imagination has powers much less robust than ordinary sensation:

When we are asked to perform the concrete example of comparing an imagined object with a perceptual one - that is, of actually stopping, closing our eyes, concentrating on the imagined face or the imagined room, then opening our eyes and comparing its attributes to whatever greets us when we return to the sensory world - ... the imagined object lacks the vitality and vivacity of the perceived;


Even if, as Sartre observes, the object we select to imagine in this example is the face of a beloved friend, one we know in intricate will be, by comparison with an actually present face, "thin," "dry," "two-dimensional" and "inert."

And so we see the dilemma that Scarry presents us with with greater clarity:

The human capacity to injure other people has always been much greater than its ability to imagine other people. or perhaps we should say, the human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small.

Scarry proceeds to use much of the essay to discuss proposed solutions to this dilemma. Personally I disagree to an extent on the human ability to imagine other people. I think our capacity to imagine other people is quite great, but tends to be sidelined compared to things such as self-interest. I also do not think her "solutions" are workable. In that vein, I wish to present an alternative solution to the profound lack of empathy in our society.

One must be quiet to be empathetic

Scarry begins her attempt to explain a path to "achieving mental equality" by arguing that it is impossible for us to try to make Others as "weighty" as ourselves. That it is impossible to truly grasp the complexities and dense interiors of those around us on the same level as we feel our own internal weight. She presents an alternative:

The alternative strategy is to achieve equality between self and other not by trying to make one's knowledge of others as weighty one's knowledge of oneself, but by making one ignorant about oneself, and therefore as weightless as all others.


By becoming featureless, by having a weightlessness, a two-dimensionality, a dryness every bit as "impoverished" as the imagined Other, the condition of equality is achieved.

She associates this tendency with the thought of Bertrand Russell and John Rawls and I assume you can imagine how I feel about each of those two philosophers (hint: neither of them command very much of my respect).

I do not think that this kind of subtraction is even psychologically tenable. Maybe it might make sense in an academic setting, or perhaps if people literally sat down when each new country was founded and signed an actual "social contract," but this seems to be a psychologically untenable position to hold on a daily basis. We have interior depths and trying to deny ourselves the knowledge of those depths on a daily basis seems borderline schizophrenic.

So that cannot be a reasonable solution. Instead, I point to a rather...out-of-character genre as holding the solution to this: romance. What we must cultivate is an INTEREST in the hidden depths of the Other (a central theme within much romance, both literature and in real life). We must DESIRE to evade subtraction. We must actively want to dive into the depths of the Other, to lose ourselves in their complexity. For this, we must listen. We must observe. We must be quiet. But more than anything else, we must desire. And therein lies a chief issue with empathy, and an explanation for why it is both necessary on an interpersonal level and cynically weaponized on a societal level.

Empathy Doesn't Scale

The central problem of empathy as I just explained above is interest. One cannot be interested in people you know only as an abstraction. Or, at the very least, one cannot be nearly as interested in them as one can be in a particular loved one. I think it is reasonable to say that if you are presented with a situation in which you can only save either your wife or a stranger from death, if you hesitate for more than maybe 2 or 3 seconds before rushing to your wife, there is almost certainly something wrong with you.

Scarry understands this as well:

Yet while a poem is far more able than a daydream to bring other persons to press on our minds, even here we must recognize severe limits on what the imagination can accomplish. One key limit is the number of characters. A novel or poem may have one major character. Or four major characters. It is impossible to hold rich multitudes of imaginary characters simultaneously in the mind.


Public life requires that we be capable of exercising not so much personal compassion as what, within medical writing, has been called "statistical compassion." for this, literature prepares us inadequately, since even secondary characters (let alone second hundredth or second thousandth characters) lack the density of personhood that is attributed to the central character.

Other authors also discuss these problems.

First, Susan Wolf's paper "Moral Saints" discusses a false ideal she calls the Loving Saint:

First, a moral saint might be someone whose concern for others plays the role that is played in most of our lives by more selfish, or, at any rate, less morally worthy concerns. For the moral saint, the promotion of the welfare of others might play the role that is played for most of us by the enjoyment of material comforts, the opportunity to engage in the intellectual and physical activities of our choice, and the love, respect, and companionship of people whom we love, respect, and enjoy. The happiness of the moral saint, then, would truly lie in the happiness of others, and so he would devote himself to others gladly, and with a whole and open heart.


For there comes a point in the listing of virtues that a moral saint is likely to have where one might naturally begin to wonder whether the moral saint isn't, after all, too good-if not too good for his own good, at least too good for his own well-being. For the moral virtues, given that they are, by hypothesis, all present in the same individual, and to an extreme degree, are apt to crowd out the nonmoral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy, well-rounded, richly developed character.

It is important to understand a conclusion that derives quite simply from what Wolf is discussing: you cannot love everybody. In fact, if your closest friend treated you no differently than he treated anyone else, you would probably wonder how much of a friend they really are.

In that vein, compare the visceral reaction to hearing a loved one has been struck by a car to the far less visceral reaction of hearing about a foreign tragedy. The latter may still be visceral, but this tragedy that impacts a far greater multitude of people is less important to us than a more personal issue. AND THAT'S OKAY. In fact, it may very well be good. The philosopher Hugh LaFollette has published a chapter of one of his books online, free for all to read. The chapter, titled Morality and Personal Relationships, is a defense of particularity in the development of the moral character of individuals:

Here I want to bring these disparate suggestions together to defend an Aristotelian-type two-pronged thesis: that a) close personal relationships are likely to be formed and persist only among morally good people, and that b) close personal relationships are prerequisites for the development of morally good people.

It is that second point that is so important. We come to universality through particularity. It is the particular relationships we are in that prime and cultivate our ability to extend our empathy to distant others. It is through these particular relationships that we are interested in that we come to understand that Others have internal depths of their own. And it is only with that understanding that we can properly extend that to rest of the World.

As I have said before, there is a fascinating take on narcissism in, of all places, the FX series Legion (great show):

Unlike the allegory of the cave, where the people are real and the shadows are false, here, other people are the shadows. Their faces, their lives. This is the delusion of the narcissist. Who believes that they alone are real. Their feelings are the only feelings that matter, because other people are just shadows. And shadows don’t feel, because they’re not real.

And so we must understand that as the natural flower of true empathy is compassion, the root of true empathy is love. And love can only be built in a particular relationship. Love is built via increasing intimacy, as individuals grow together like vines until one cannot exist without the other. The loss of the other is very much a loss of the self. One's self expands to encompass the other. This, of course, can only happen in a limited fashion. Love is always particular. Expanding who you love necessarily diminishes the depth of the relationships you have. This depth is a function of both intimacy and time. You cannot escape this.

Instead, we should embrace this. We should be focusing on cultivating a society in which individuals have far stronger and healthier personal relationships, where they learn good moral habits from an early age. It is only in this way we can even hope to solve the problem of empathy lacking on a broader scale.

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