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The fact that empathy is the cornerstone of human relationships seems clear enough. Without the ability to see people’s perspectives or put ourselves in their shoes – respectively known as cognitive and emotional empathy – we lack the crucial skills to form bonds with others.
Both kinds of empathy are essential but neither is quite enough to navigate successfully through life. It is possible to have an understanding of how other people tick without feeling touched by their emotions – psychologist Daniel Goleman writes about the “Dark Triad” of narcissists, Machiavellians and sociopaths. And the downside of emotional empathy is that too much of it can lead to burnout or detachment through exhaustion.
The traumas and dilemmas of friends and relatives often readily arouse our emotional empathy. Alternatively, cognitive empathy allows us to understand their point of view. But what can we do when the frustrations and terrors of our loved ones fail to evoke any empathy? Take the friend who repeatedly becomes involved with unsuitable lovers, or a partner who has a fear that appears impervious to reason. If we are unable to relate to their issues, we’re liable to react with impatience.
But even if we can’t quite grasp what they’re going through, we can draw on more general points of contact to help build understanding. Most of us have some experience of getting into an unhelpful pattern that’s hard to pull out of, or of being unable to shake off a fear even though we can see it’s irrational. By virtue of having been in that position, we can be motivated to treat others with kindness and compassion.
Compassion is not the same as empathy, though. A team at the Max Planck Institute found that while empathy is connected with negative emotions, compassion is associated with the neural networks of love and affiliation. Even if empathy is in short supply, we can aim to cultivate feelings of caring and warmth.
If morality is to be anything more than a social convention or human invention, it must surely rest on something that has an indisputable objective authority. Only God and reason appear to be sufficiently mighty to form such a pillar. And yet there are those who claim that morality rests on something seemingly much less solid: empathy.
Versions of this idea were found in the 18th century, in the works of Adam Smith, David Hume and Francis Hutcheson. Smith, for example, wrote: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” Smith believed that morality was built on this fellow feeling rather than any abstract principle or divine command.
Psychological research into the basis of moral reasoning lends some scientific credibility to this view. Our judgments of right and wrong are rarely based on cool calculation. More often, emotions such as belonging, anger, outrage, disgust and sympathy are what drive us to help, praise, blame or punish others. It seems that feeling for others is necessary for living with others.
But what happens when empathy fails, as it often does when we think about people far away or even of different ethnic groups? This would be a serious worry if we thought that morality was nothing more than empathy working in the service of enlightened self-interest. It’s true that the only reason we take the needs of others seriously is the felt recognition that they also have interests, desires, pains and pleasures. Without empathy, such awareness would be absent or purely theoretical. Feeling for others leads us to give thought to them too.
However, although empathy gets morality going, it is not where it ends. Once it’s up and running, we use our heads to work out the fairest ways of balancing the needs of all. Empathy is thus the base camp of ethics, whose peaks lie elsewhere.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England.
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Illustration by Laura Carlin
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