On the Benefit (and Detriment) of Empathy

David Lauer

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When Joe Biden and his designated Vice President Kamala Harris walked onto the stage in Wilmington, Delaware on 7 November 2020 to announce victory in the US presidential election, the gigantic video screen to his left displayed the words: “The people have chosen empathy”. A fitting slogan for the candidate whose campaign made empathy his core brand. Biden, the man who suffered great personal tragedy after prematurely losing his first wife and children, was capable of feeling the pain of American families who had lost family members during the pandemic. Biden, the man who has never been ashamed to publicly address the pain and mourning he experienced, was able to credibly express his sympathy and offer consolation.

With this image, Biden campaigned against Donald Trump, the man whom the American journalist and former Secretary of State Robert Reich once called “the least empathetic person in the world” and whose fanatic followers proudly wore T-shirts with the message “Fuck your feelings!”. Trump, who proved himself incapable again and again throughout his presidency of showing or at least feigning one iota of compassion for victims of earthquakes or mass shootings. Trump, who regarded every public expression of emotion as unmanly and show of compassion as mere stupidity. We all know the result – Trump lost. In the end, empathy trumped heartlessness.



The story of Joe Biden’s victory seems to confirm the role of empathy as a force of good. It lies at the centre of discourse which – in the wake of the mirror neuron theory – began gaining momentum around the turn of the millennium and which proclaimed empathy to be an elemental social force, from Frans de Waal’s “The Age of Empathy” and Jeremy Rifkin’s “The Empathic Civilization” to more recent publications such as “Empathy. Why Empathetic People Are Healthy and Happy” and “Homo Empathicus”.

That this role is being attributed to empathy is by no means a new development. A similar insight occurred in the 18th century when David Hume, Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared natural compassion to be the foundation of our moral underpinnings. At the turn of the 20th century, a number of German philosophers, including Theodor Lipps, Max Scheler and Edith Stein, identified “Einfühlung” (empathy) as the fundamental concept in a theory of intersubjective understanding and social action. On both occasions, the discussion was sparked by experiences of isolation and alienation in a rapidly accelerating modern world, which in turn questioned the viability of society. The current discussion on empathy is similar in nature, namely in response to the increasing fragmentation and virtualisation in social life in the area of new digital media. Under a cloud of “shitstorms”, trolling and anonymous hate speech, hardly any field of social practice has felt the destructive effect of a lack of empathy as severely as digital media.



It has been empirically proven that empathy can be a force of good. Yet sceptics never tire to point out its dark side. The emotional shock that empathy can evoke in response to a concrete event can sometimes overshadow more abstract ethical considerations such as justice and fairness. And empathy doesn’t always help to bridge divides. Psychological research shows that we tend to exhibit more compassion with those who are similar to us or whom we feel close to. Such empathic attachment can lead us to also feel the negative emotions of these people – their anger, their fear, their aggression toward others who they feel threatened by. Empathy incites us to choose sides – for our side against the other – the result being that we always find it harder to empathise with those on the other side.



So what can we expect of empathy – and what not? To gain a better idea, we would first have to clarify what we mean by “empathy”. A glance at the extensive literature reveals how differently this term is used. The following can serve as a basic conceptual construct: empathy or the capacity to experience the feelings of others is the ability to consciously or unconsciously react to someone else’s expressed affective states by adopting an attitude which assumes an affective component, i.e. an emotional character. This reaction can also be conscious or unconscious. The spectrum ranges from involuntary physical responses to intentional, reflected acts of compassion. The fact that one’s own emotion must always play a role in this is important as it distinguishes empathy from the exclusively distant-intellectual (i.e. a-pathetic) observation and interpretation of other people’s behaviour.

All evidence indicates that the capacity for empathy is a naturally inherent human quality. Yet this ability can be culturally distorted in multiple ways over the course of human socialisation. When amalgamated with perceptive and linguistic skills, empathy can be specifically wielded as a social tool using various techniques. Countless bestsellers in the counselling and management literary genres promise to help readers learn and perfect these techniques. The latest trend in this market are so-called empathy coaching seminars using virtual reality simulations which promise to show clients what it (virtually) feels like to be discriminated against on account of one’s skin colour.



Here we can see why the capacity for empathy cannot always be regarded as a force of good. Empathy as an art or technique is not a virtue in itself. It can serve both good and bad purposes. First, empathy can be used to achieve inappropriate goals. Those who are most adept at arousing our empathy and directing it their way are not necessarily those who have a justified claim to it. Second, the emotional reaction evoked is not necessarily that which is socially desired. Suffering arouses pity. But not always. It can also evoke feelings of schadenfreude or vindication. With respect to the conceptual construct described above, the empathic reaction should be exactly the same in response to suffering as with anything else.

One could counter that the praise of empathy has never had to do with the mere technique of feeling for someone, but rather the virtue of empathy itself. And in this sense, schadenfreude is the exact opposite of empathy. Surprisingly, empathy is often met with reservation, frequently even by those who possess capacity for empathy. To understand this, we first have to direct our attention to the social relationships, within which empathy can be expressed and experienced. My theory states that empathy can only be regarded as a social virtual when these relationships assume a certain form.



To support this theory, I refer in the following (in very simplified form) to the considerations put forth by Max Scheler.

Let us look at two fundamentally different forms of empathy based on two examples. In the first, two individuals feel the same emotions, e.g. deep pain. Scheler’s oft-cited example suggests the image of two parents mourning at the deathbed of a beloved child. They feel the same thing, but neither parent is directing his/her feelings to the emotions of the other. The pain they each feel is directed exclusively at the child who has been taken from them. They both share the same feeling; together they represent the feeling’s plural subject. We can call this form of empathy “feeling together”.

In contrast, the second case differs in that two subjects feel their own emotion separate from one another. But here, one subject intentionally directs the feeling (empathy) toward the other. In this case, it is not the mutual loss of the object that engenders a shared affective awareness, but rather the feelings of one subject serve as the object of empathic focus of the second subject. Referring to the example above, this could be a friend of the grieving couple who empathically relates to their pain and uses her gifts of observation, experience, knowledge and imagination. She might tell them, “I know what you’re going through.” We would call this form of empathy “feeling for someone”.



The decisive aspect is that in this empathic relationship, the first subject functions only as an “object”, the focus of the other’s empathies. He or she is not an active participant in the process. In this objectification of the other lies the unavoidable presumption, an appropriation, even a usurpation of his/her subjectivity, the object of empathy. And this happens even when the second believes to hold absolutely righteous and benevolent intentions. The first is not asked whether he/she consents to this objectification or with its results. Here lies an act of disenfranchisement. This is the reason why a comment like “I know how you’re feeling” can be consoling when expressed by the right person, but by the wrong person, can come across as impertinent, invasive, or possibly even aggressive, which in turn produces a feeling of revulsion or injury.

It seems to me that this is frequently happening in the context of our current racism debates. In the struggle against racism, advocates have always placed great hopes in the idea of empathy. But this is exactly what has drawn growing criticism in recent times, namely that publicly expressing tearful empathy for suffering victims appears to rather serve the purpose of underscoring one’s own moral rectitude, thereby shirking the responsibility of the pain they so plaintively lamented. Feeling good about how bad one feels about the others’ pain allows people to take smug satisfaction at having contributed to a better world. The victims, however, insist that their suffering cannot and should not be empathetically appropriated in such an unsolicited manner. This is reflected in the more or less polemic rejections of obtrusive displays of empathy: “No non-affected individual can ever imagine what our suffering feels like. No non-affected person should feel they have the right to talk about it. Only we speak for ourselves. Only we can provide this information.”



This debate is often perceived by the opposite side as a conundrum, a double-bind of sorts, one that results in helplessness. They get the impression that on one hand, they are expected to show empathy, but on the other, when they do, it’s aggressively rejected.

Yet if we view the form of this relationship behind the apparent aporia, we can discover how we might resolve it. What is needed is a form of empathy that does not make the other into an object, but rather takes the other seriously as a subject; empathy not directed “at”, but shared “with”. This form of empathy is not a one-sided effort, but rather a dialogical process in which both must interactively participate. In this way, the responsibility for its success is borne on two pairs of shoulders. The one side must allow the other to approach it empathetically. What’s more, it must accept the almost insufferable imposition of sharing the pain, not exclusively nurturing it and defending it, but rather allowing even those who caused it a chance to share in it. The other side must realise that their role is to understand and accept the pain of the other as their own. At the same time, they must unreservedly allow the other to have the last word in the matter of whether they feel understood. The right to say “I know how you’re feeling” depends on whether the addressees recognise their right to say it.



Empathy, in my opinion, is only a virtue when it is expressed in the context of a “dialogical relationship”. In such a consensual dialogue, both sides must reveal something of themselves and make themselves vulnerable. Those who express dialogical empathy also accept this vulnerability. This is why nothing inflames the hate of toxic sociopaths à la Trump as much as the public showing of vulnerability by those whom they despise as “liberal snowflakes” and “bleeding hearts”. These individuals demonstrate what such haters are incapable of. At the same time, we can gain a better understanding of the power of empathy. We find that empathy depends far less on feeling than it does on the form of the relationship. If this relationship is one-sided, empathy is nothing more than a social technique. But in dialogical form, an initially one-sided feeling can be transformed into a shared expression of empathy. This is the only way to restore a balance between the dark and bright sides of empathy. Regarded in this way, empathy is ultimately a force of good. It requires a form of empathy that does not view the other as an object, but a subject worth taking seriously.

David Lauer

David Lauer teaches philosophy at the University of Kiel. He has published several anthologies on linguistic philosophy and the philosophy of mind. He is also the co-author of a book on language and understanding the world (“In der Welt der Sprache” with Georg Bertram, Jasper Liptow and Martin Seel, Suhrkamp 2008) and a regular commentator for the philosophy journal “Sein und Streit” on Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Lauer is currently finishing a book on the question of what it means to know a person.

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