Does Everyone Deserve Empathy?
When this question first puzzled me weeks ago, I didn’t realize how many assumptions it holds. That empathy is a gift to the person whose feelings (real or imagined) one feels vicariously. That it is always desirable, at least to that person. That it is either earned by merit or a basic human right. The more I think about it, the more complicated it gets.
The capacity for empathy is innate, one of many unconscious ways we copy those we interact with. Babies cry when they hear a baby cry. Dogs bark when they hear a dog bark. Empathy helps us learn from each other’s experiences, predict others’ behavior, and cooperate. In evolutionary terms, passing on the relevant genes depends more on empathy’s survival value for empathic individuals and communities than for the people whose feelings are mirrored.
Even so, empathy is not always helpful. I don’t want to empathize with the hater or promoter of unfounded fear. Parents calm an anxious child by not getting anxious themselves. I’d prefer my surgeon pain-free and focused, even when I’m distracted by pain. Caring, yes. Understanding, yes. Recognizing another’s humanity, yes. But whether or not empathy is appropriate in any particular case may have nothing to do with deserving.
Image: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Les Noisettes (The Nut Gatherers), 1882. Detroit Institute of Arts.
2/21/2022 08:46:38 am
It's a very interesting hypothesis you pose, and I sense I won't do it justice in a comment. My perspective is that empathy is always helpful. Having and experiencing empathy is vital to human connection and compassion. As a trait, empathy develops and broadens our intellectual perspective. As a state, empathy deepens our emotional experience. Yet you make an important point that how we enact our feeling of empathy may need regulated to a specific circumstance. Applied empathy, acting upon empathy, requires that we assess the situation and choose an appropriate response that will be most helpful to ourselves and others.
2/21/2022 09:57:58 am
Fair points. Some writers build emotional regulation into the definition of empathy, resolving my dilemmas about parental anxiety or a surgeon in pain. I think of that more as sympathy and understanding. More difficult (to me) is empathy for participants in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville or the 2021 insurrectionists at the Capitol. I do aim for human connection and compassion. Is sharing their hatred the only path there, even if I know enough not to act on it? Curiosity seems a more palatable and achievable way toward understanding.
2/21/2022 11:14:33 am
I agree empathy is a complicated topic. My understanding is the capacity for empathy, while innate in most of us, is lacking for about 1% among us (people usually called psychopaths). Yet computer models of societal efficiency in accomplishing certain survival tasks have shown that as a whole, society tends to be more functional with a small portion of these non-empathetic individuals (at about the 1% we have). Too many overwhelms us, while too few builds in more inefficiency (read: too much empathy can make society less functional). It seems that empathy serves to keep us sufficiently cohesive but can serve to be detrimental if we all gave that "gift" all the time.
2/21/2022 04:39:26 pm
Fascinating about psychopaths serving a societal purpose. I'd mentioned psychopaths in an early draft of this post (my first drafts are always longer), but only as an exception to the innate capacity for empathy. Can you tell me more about how having a few people lack empathy altogether (as distinct from most being only moderately empathic) would make society more functional and efficient? I can't picture how that works.
2/21/2022 04:59:59 pm
The computer simulations actually were designed to test "cooperative" versus "parasitic behavior", not empathy directly. I drew the extension of such research findings to empathy versus lack thereof (what might be called callousness, another definitional characteristic of psychopathy). What was found was a society that was full of cooperation failed to be as energized as a society that had a small portion of those who took advantage of others. Of course, too many of the latter, and society completely broke down; but having a small portion of people who take advantage of our "innate" trusting/caring natures apparently keeps the rest of us working together for better. As is found in various studies, humans are not fully logical beings. Some animosity does us some good, as long as it does not overwhelm us.
2/21/2022 09:41:15 pm
Dennis, intriguing. I wonder what is the relation, if any, between empathy vs taking advantage on the one hand, and the more commonly drawn example of socialism (cooperation) vs capitalism or private enterprise (competition). A lecturer on the history of capitalism was saying that the Marxist collective ideal doesn't energize or motivate innovation - a partial reason for the fall of the USSR. Similar dynamic or unrelated?
2/22/2022 06:06:28 am
You question is bringing me beyond my area of expertise. With that said, my understanding about why the Marxist ideal diminishes motivation is because there is no reward for effort beyond the minimum required. Without reward, motivation for extra effort gets extinguished over time. I am thinking that a world without psychopathy, however, would be more like a world with less human opposition. Human opposition seems to cause us to set boundaries between “us” and “them”. Working to make “us” overcome “them” seems to be a very strong motivator, whether in support of a sports team or to earn more money “than the Jones” or “mak[ing] America great again”/ “build back better”. I don’t think our “team” identity has based substantially with rewards or lack thereof - just look at people who support constantly losing sports teams or political groups that keep failing them.
2/22/2022 07:36:53 am
Thanks for this, Dennis. "Human opposition" is a useful term and concept I didn't know before. Related to competition but not quite the same. Thinking in terms of us vs. them extends way beyond one percent of the population. Is the role of psychopaths to give most people someone they almost have to categorize as "them"?
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.