#7: Empathy vs. Rational Compassion: Part 2: Basic Flaws in the Empathic Model of Compassion

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Against a grey background, we see the red flame that represents the Logos (the spirit of reason that animates the Universe). In front of that, we see a badly-drawn representation of a human brain - on which there is a lightbulb that is lit, representing thought. Some of the rays from the lightbulb's glow gradually blend into the flame, representing how our reasoning faculty is part of the Logos. This image is for articles in this blog dealing with logic and critical thought.
The popular theory is that emotional empathy is the precursor to compassion as people help each other in order to avoid themselves suffering empathetic pain if they don’t. However, in reality, things just don’t very often work out that way.
This piece is Episode 7 of the podcast: Philadelphia Stoic Thouhts
In the previous episode of this podcast, I clarified a few definitions in preparation for discussing why society ought to refrain from encouraging empathy, and ought to instead encourage rational compassion. I explained that what is referred to as “empathy” in the context of this discussion is emotional empathy, that is, the tendency to vicariously feel what you rightly or wrongly perceive someone else to feel in a given situation. I also explained how that differs from compassion, which is the commitment to do what you can to alleviate and/or avert another’s adverse situation.However, as distinct as emotional empathy and compassion are from one another, the two get blurred together in the popular imagination. This is to the point that people often use the terms interchangeably.

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.

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

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