#6: Empathy versus Rational Compassion: Part One: What We Mean by “Empathy”

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I want to discuss why society ought to encourage rational compassion rather than empathy. But before I can do that, I must clarify what “empathy” means in this discussion and why it is important to keep in mind how empathy and compassion are not the same thing.
This piece is Episode 6 of the podcast: Philadelphia Stoic Thouhts
You hear people talk about it all the time, as though it were the solution to all the problems of the country, even the world – or at least most of those problems. The thing that I’m referring to is empathy. Everyone, from George Lakoff to Barack Obama seems to suggest that empathy will make us a more ethical, more moral, stronger society.Now, I definitely am a fan of Obama, and I also believe that Lakoff has many important things to teach. That said, nobody is perfect – and in the case of these two individuals, their endorsement of empathy as the solution to moral crisis is among their flaws – and pretty huge among their flaws at that.

No, I’m not suggesting that we should just do whatever we want to our fellow human beings with no regard to what our actions put them through. What I am saying is that empathy isn’t the way to avoid mistreating people like that.

Paul Bloom discusses this issue in his book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. He discusses the issue in his book from his point-of-view as a psychologist in greater detail than I can here, even though I will be devoting multiple episodes to the subject. That said, as a philosophy blogger, it is still essential that I discuss this here.

Before I go any further, it is important that I clarify what is being referred to as “empathy”. This is important because there is not just one thing that is referred to as “empathy” but actually two or three distinct things. This is enough to risk bringing the Ambiguity Fallacy into play – and that is only when the term is used with due care. Through careless throwing around of terms, a fourth thing (more properly referred to as “compassion”) is added to the possible meanings of the term “empathy” which not only can potentially result in the Ambiguity Fallacy, but frequently does in discussions of this matter.

Paul Bloom recognizes two things that are properly referred to as “empathy”. These are emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy is the tendency to vicariously feel what another person is perceived to feel in a specific situation. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how someone else would feel in a given situation, but without any implication that you vicariously feel that yourself.

I add a third item to the list of things properly referred to as empathy. This is something which, though my personal experience inclines me to believe that it exists, I can not prove that it exists – and therefore leave it to my readers and audience to use their own discretion to accept, reject, or defer judgement on the notion of its existence.

This third empathy, which I refer to as “psychic empathy”, is not merely a perceptive ability or tendency, but a sense in its own right. A psychic empath actually senses the feelings of those around them. The information thus sensed often manifests in the form of the psychic empath experiencing second-hand the bodily sensations associated with the detected emotion.

Again, I leave it to my readers and audience to come to their own conclusions as to whether or not psychic empathy exists. This is not solely due to its lack of provability at the present time. It has more to do with the fact that whether or not psychic empathy exists doesn’t really have any bearing on the main subject matter. As a matter of fact, the only reason why it needs to be mentioned here at all is that enough people are familiar with the idea that it must be made clear that this is not the empathy that is being referred to in the public discussion on whether or not empathy should be promoted.

As for those who are skeptical of the existence of psychic empathy or who altogether reject the idea of its existence, emotional empathy is generally the default meaning of the term “empathy”. As a matter of fact, this is even true with regards to some people who positively do believe in the existence of psychic empathy. At any rate, when the term “empathy” is used with proper care in this discussion, it pretty much always is in reference to emotional empathy – which, as previously stated, is the tendency to vicariously feel whatever someone else is perceived as feeling in a given situation.

That said, not every use of the term “empathy” in this discussion is made with due care for the proper use of words. Very often, the term is used to refer to something else more properly referred to as “compassion”. Compassion is a commitment to do what is in one’s power to help alleviate and/or avert another’s adverse situation.

Why do people so often bungle the terms “empathy” and “compassion”? Of course, this is partly because clumsy use of language is something that way too few people take care to avoid. As a matter of fact, sometimes, when someone is reminded of the proper use of terms, they become indignant. They accuse the person doing the reminding of something ominous such as being hung up on labels. They generally don’t understand how paralyzing sloppy use of language can be to one’s ability to think critically.

But why are these two terms in particular so often mixed? This is probably because of a common misconception that compassion and emotional empathy go hand in hand. In the next episode, I will get into the discussion of what the reasons are for this belief and how that reasoning is flawed. But before I could do that, I had to clarify exactly what is meant in this discussion by “empathy”, why it is important to be clear on that, and why it is important to avoid using the terms “empathy” and “compassion” interchangeably.

“Life of Riley” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

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