Your Shoes Don’t Fit My Feet (On Rescuing Empathy)

A new forum discussion has begun on the Boston Review, on the topic of empathy – namely, whether  its existence needs justification in order to be considered useful. It should turn out to be an  engaging debate, and I recommend you follow it.  Paul Bloom’s opening article (bluntly titled ‘Against Empathy’) challenges a lot of what we assume we  need in our work at Dwight Hall, and so is worth responding to. While I recommend you read his entire article, for the purposes of this reflection his key arguments are as follows:

  1. “Our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside” because “empathy is narrow”, encouraging us  to focus on individuals rather than the protection  of  the masses.
  2. Private empathy causes feelings of distress, even leading to depression: empathy is thus “destructive of the individual in the long run”.
  3. ‘Compassion’ and ‘Empathy’ are distinct – while the former is useful for positive human relationships (when tempered by ‘rationality’), the latter is comparable to anger in being dangerous when left un-tempered or ‘arbitrary’.

Now, all due respect to Professor Bloom – but his first argument doesn’t wholly jive with me. It sounds a little too like ‘feelings are a distraction from truth’ and  ‘if something isn’t running at maximum materialist efficiency, we might as well smash it’. I’m cautious of positions that treat emotional engagement with 

suspicion, and find it curious that he highlights the ‘feminine’ nature of empathy (apparently women are most prone to its toxic, distracting powers, leading them to languish in ‘asymmetrical’ relationships. There couldn’t possibly be another reason for that asymmetry… anyway. Back on subject).

His third argument could also do with some clarification – if he wishes to make a distinction between ‘compassion’ (good) and ‘empathy’ (bad) I’m not totally convinced that compassion can arise without empathy. At the very least – scraping the bottom of the empathy barrel – when we encounter another living creature we recognise a shared experience that we feel is worth protecting, even if it is foolish to believe we can really feel what another subjective creature feels. If the ‘masses’ to which Bloom refers remain ‘the masses’ to us – a number we can’t emotionally or even intellectually comprehend – are we going to be willing to sacrifice our own resources or energies for them?

But his second argument – that experiencing empathy is personally destructive – was the hardest to read, because it hit closest to home. I score (and I totally unscientifically suspect many people involved in social justice work do) as a highly empathetic person. This is not (as Bloom’s article points out) something that necessarily makes me a do-gooder – it just means that I am especially prone to speculation and concern about the experiences of others around me. This isn’t (again, as Bloom’s article points out) a particularly ‘useful’ trait: I also suffer from depression and anxiety, which are closely related to high levels of empathy.Would it be better for me if I were able to create more distance between my own experiences and those of others?


But let’s put the baby back in the bath water for a moment.

 Would it be better for me to not experience the sorrows and joys of others around me at all? Certainly not. Bloom’s example of empathy-free compassion proposes that it would be far better to be able to practically support one’s ailing friend without feeling what they’re feeling, with the assumption that the thing your friend most wants is your practical support – if you can give them that without suffering yourself, it’s a win-win. But is that really what we always want from our friends? Advice without shared tears? Perhaps we do, sometimes. But I don’t think that’s enough. And what about shared excitement? Isn’t that empathy too? Do I want my friends to intellectually acknowledge my successes and failures, or do I want them to feel with me?

But the role of empathy, to my mind, isn’t limited to what it positively offers relationships with others. Empathy also has something to offer us in shaping our personal lives. Bloom’s article assumes that it is obvious that it’s good for humans to not experience sorrow or worry as a result of concern for another creature.Do sorrow and worry have nothing to teach us? Is the act of mourning with someone else morally redundant? It hasn’t been for me. Mourning, rejoicing, listening to others’ stories – not inaction, but action of a different – and truly valuable – kind. The word empathy combines the Greek words for ‘into’ (em) and ‘feeling’ (pathos).Empathy is a movement towards the feelings of another. Perhaps we might imagine a world where we could solely reason our way to acting for others. But I suspect those actions would be weaker for it.

Hannah Malcolm (M.A.R. World Christianities)

Rev. John Magee Fellow, Dwight Hall

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