But why this conflation between these two things that are definitely not the same thing? It’s because of a myth that is so ubiquitous in our society that few people even question it – the notion that compassion and emotional empathy are inseparable. Believers in this myth hold that emotional empathy invariably leads to compassion, and that compassion can only be sustained (or, at least, is best sustained) by means of emotional empathy.
The way people believe that this works is simple. Let’s say, for an illustrative example, that you have an anvil on your foot. Meanwhile, I am walking by, free of any anvil on mine. The popular theory holds that if I am emotionally empathetic, my knowledge of what you are going through will cause me to feel as though there is an anvil on my own foot – and that I will be motivated to help you remove the anvil from your foot in order to relieve myself of the vicarious suffering that your direct suffering imposes on me. It also holds that if knowing about the anvil on your foot does not cause me such vicarious discomfort, I’m going to just walk on without even caring if there’s anything that I can do to help you.
The same popular theory also holds that the threat of vicariously feeling your pain, and only that threat, would motivate me to protect you from having an anvil fall on your foot. Believers may even claim that (aside from fear of incarceration) this fear of empathetic pain would be the only thing that could restrain me from myself throwing an anvil on your foot upon the first temptation to do so.
However, while this popular theory holds up well in this simplistic illustration, in reality, the popular theory has way too many holes in it for it to qualify as an actual theory.
For starters, it’s awfully presumptive to assume that someone’s response to empathetic pain would be to come to the aid of the one in direct suffering. Many times, it’s easier to shield oneself from the empathetic pain of another using any of a number of shielding tactics than it is to actually help. These shielding tactics do nothing to help the directly injured party, and some of them may even inflict additional injury.
Of course, were I a proponent of empathy culture, I might then suggest that we see it as a moral obligation to refrain from the use of such shielding tactics. But such a moral imperative is something that very obviously can’t be sustained through empathy. It requires us to be able to train ourselves to have moral restraint that doesn’t come from feeling another’s pain. Once it is accepted that this is even possible, the entire notion that it’s impossible to be compassionate without being empathetic falls apart.
Also, as Paul Bloom discusses in his book, empathizing with everyone in the world is a bit too much for any one person to process. As a result, a narrowing of one’s focus of empathy is inevitable. Very often, this narrowing down of one’s circle of empathy is done in an inadvertently selective way that not only fails to motivate someone to do the most good that is possible, but at times can even motivate someone to make decisions that on the whole are quite harmful.
Finally, even if my empathy in a particular situation is indeed directed to where my compassion is needed, and even if I don’t use any of those shielding tactics instead of helping – it may be discovered that my empathy doesn’t help the effort to provide relief to the directly injured party, but rather, distracts from it. If you’ve got that anvil on your foot, you don’t need to hear about how bad I feel about the situation. What you need is for me to help you lift that anvil off of your foot.
Of course, for someone who has been for a while sold on to the notion that what we need is more empathy in society, this can be a lot to take in. Each of these flaws in the empathy model of ethical motivation will need more explaining in order to make it clear how they are not mere hair splittings, but serious flaws in the empathy model that actually cause it to be harmful rather than helpful in real life. But there is only so much space in one episode, so I’ll have to wait to start covering this in more depth until next episode when I continue this series on Empathy versus Rational Compassion.