Saturday 8 February 2020

Empathy is Not Love

We live in a very empathetic age. Or rather an age in which empathy is regarded as a most desirable characteristic which is not quite the same thing. This leads me to ask, what is empathy? Is it the mark of an evolved human being or perhaps something else?

None of what I say here should be taken as implying that empathy is not, in the main, a good thing. To be able to think of others is clearly the sign of a civilised person. Nevertheless, I would suggest it is not always an unqualified good thing. It is not to be admired under all circumstances. In fact, too much empathy or misdirected empathy can be not only foolish but positively harmful.

Is empathy really about caring for others or is there something in it of an automatic response to the herd instinct of a social animal? Lack of empathy shows selfishness but some people do like to cosset their feelings and to feel good about themselves. Empathy in the modern world often seems to be as much about the empathiser as the empathised

Empathy is associated more with the feminine mentality than the masculine. The Western world has become increasingly feminised over the last few decades and this is inevitably leading to civilisational decline. If you don't believe that then study history. It is unlikely to be arrested as it is part of cyclical movement associated with the end of an age but we should still understand processes at work so we are not swept up by them and can remain aloof inwardly.

One reason for the decline alluded to is that the feminine approach favours empathy over truth and soft feelings over hard reality.  It portrays what it thinks should be as what is and prefers the nice to the real.  Now, it is certain that truth needs to be balanced by empathy (which I am not calling love because it isn't love) but truth must be the dominating principle. If truth is given a subsidiary position, or even sacrificed altogether as it tends to be now, we become separated from reality and the inevitable result is decline and disorder.

When a civilisation has been built up by male energy and creativity to a certain level of accomplishment there is then enough of a surplus or 'fat' in the system to allow women to escape their previous roles of wives and mothers and start to become more active members of the society. This might have individual benefits (though maybe not from a spiritual point of view) but it does not benefit the civilisation over the long run which becomes unbalanced in the sense that it loses a grounding in reality, reality requiring a harmonious interaction between masculine and feminine each fulfilling its proper role, a role indicated both by biology and spiritual insight for the two are both grounded in the same ultimate reality of God. The society will become more empathetic and lose the firm strength it requires to preserve itself from inner decay and outer attack. In this sense, empathy is actually destructive. If it favours the short term and immediate to the deeper view then it is little more than a form of self-indulgence.

Empathy is a form of love but it is an immature form. It needs to develop into something that is rooted in an awareness of God and a recognition of his will for human beings. It is really just the secular version of a spiritual quality and, as such, can actually get in the way of deeper feeling if not outgrown.


Anonymous said...

Like all virtues these days, empathy both gets distorted, and gets exaggerated/redefined to such a degree that it distorts other virtues.

As you say, it gets conflated with love, but also with sympathy and pity.

You bring to mind Alexander Pope's quip: ( )
"Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace."

You and your readers likely recognize the "endure-pity-embrace" sequence as a tool (frequently used in conjunction with "triangulation" -aka "moving goal-posts") often used by modern forces to advance vice.


William Wildblood said...

Yes, I do recognise the creep, as I call it. The more habituated you get to something the more normal it seems. Things that once would have been rejected with instinctive disgust become accepted and then even celebrated. Endure-pity-embrace as you say.

edwin faust said...

Flannery O'Connor once wrote: "In the absence of faith we rule by compassion, and compassion leads to the gas chamber." This puzzled me for a long time. Now, I think I understand it, as it is happening in front of me. In the name of compassion - empathy - for the sexually perverse, tax money is being used to fund sex-change operations. To object is to be labeled a bigot and, pehaps, to be charged with a hate crime. We have a political candidate in the U.S. - Sanders - some of whose supporters are in favor of re-education camps for those who fail to empathize with all of their selected victim groups. First, the camp, then ... the gas chamber? All in the name of inclusiveness and compassion.

William Wildblood said...

I agree with what you say, edwin, except to say that it is really fake empathy and fake compassion we are talking about here. This is where humanism without God leads. The deification of the human being with the corresponding blackening as evil those who do not go along with said deification.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I tend to regard empathy as an involuntary 'sympathy' in the sense of 'resonating with'. So when we feel empathy for a person in pain, we feel and experience the pain in ourselves; or for joy.

It is perhaps a basis for moral choice, but not good in itself - for example, a sadist depends on empathy to enjoys experiencing the pain he inflicts on someone. Someone with zero empathy would not enjoy inflicting pain.

As such, empathy is something a doctor is trained *out* of, during an effective medical training; because if a doctor experiences (spontaneously, involuntarily) the pain of a pateint, then the doctor cannot do what is necessary - indeed he could not really do the job at all, since it would be contiual, unbearable suffering.

Surgery for example, entails inflicting short term main and misery for long term benefit but how could an empathic surgeon do what was necessary? He couldn't! - thus effective surgeons are notoriously non-empathic! And the doctor in general needs just enough empathy to understand what the patient is experiencing, but no more.

The mass media is a system to impose empathic identification on the masses (by novelty, escalating horror and lust stimuli etc), and thereby paralyse them/ us.

William Wildblood said...

Thank you Bruce. Your comment clarifies for me some of the reasons why empathy is not the universal good it is supposed to be. I think it is being used nowadays to 'dumb us down' and disarm serious arguments against the materialistic all human beings are the same dogma.

Kirstie said...

Again, a wonderful post. Spot on. I would say even to a non-believer this rings true. Empathy and compassion have become commodities and those who shout the loudest about how compassionate and aware they are of other's misfortunes, are generally doing it to make themselves feel good not the other person. I believe genuine empathy occurs naturally, spontaneously, like a child's. So very interesting that Bruce points out that a surgeon's empathy needs to be 'controlled' for the benefit of the patient, not themselves. I think this is key, and also audience plays a big part. And again and again whenever I try to understand empathy, it most definitely comes down to the intention of the individual performing the act. And I think only a mature, sincere mind can begin to understand God's role in this.

William Wildblood said...

Thanks Kirstie. Yes, empathy without a proper understanding of God, emphasising proper, can easily lead if not to the gas chamber as in edwin's quote then certainly spiritual damage.

Anonymous said...

I think Kirstie made a very perceptive point there - that the current form of 'empathy' that is focused upon is often to massage the ego of the 'empathiser'.
But without the child's spontaneous empathy (have you ever witnessed the touching concern that even very young children sometimes have for others?), love can become very detached and clinical. And it can make us miss out on an awful lot as well - the error or wrongs in others can be very obvious to us if we don't suffer from the same particular weakness, but we can miss the delicate intention of goodness that can sometimes exist suffocated or misdirected within the error.
And like William I think infers, this alone is no use if it causes us to lose our capacity for clear sighted judgement that guides genuine love .
It's a balance - both are needed, I think.

jana gatien said...

Yes. Virtue signalling without the actual virtue. I've also noticed things like compassion, tolerance & (gag) inclusivity have been conveniently and artificially elevated to "universal virtue" status, and so people are prone to try and show off a pathetic display of these qualities (as it could be debated as to whether or not they're virtues at all). Hence the hollow virtue signalling epidemic...

William Wildblood said...