Let’s move away from what I’ve been writing about recently in regards to making efforts to improve oneself and instead look at something else.
It’s something that I’ve definitely thought about a lot recently, but I hadn’t felt the desire to write about it until I read Ethan_07’s post that talks about stories can invoke feelings of empathy from us.
This time though, I’m not going to try to make any relations to anime, it’s just my personal thoughts on empathy itself.
Been listening to the FFX soundtrack quite a bit lately, so that’s the post theme for this one:
What I’d like to write about here is the moral status of empathy.
Is empathy a virtue?
Is it inherently virtuous to be able to rationally and emotionally understand the feelings of someone else? And beyond that, is it virtuous to act upon that empathy?
I feel like so often now, especially with all of the political discourse we see online, more and more people espouse that “we need to be more empathetic”. I’ve seen it so often, where people will accuse others of lacking empathy, essentially boasting that they themselves are the empathetic one.
Seems like the word is being thrown all over the place, and the context is usually in a way that says that empathy is good, it’s virtuous, that you want empathy. To lack it is to lack virtue.
Is this true?
Personally, I lean towards the idea that empathy itself is not virtuous. Being able to understand someone else’s perspective, experiences, and feelings can certainly lead to something that you could consider virtuous, but if someone is empathetic but never acts on said empathy, can you really call them virtuous?
I don’t think you can.
Can you even call them empathetic, if they never act upon their empathy?
I don’t know, I think there’s an argument there for both sides to be honest.
And I feel like now, maybe more than ever, we have hordes of people on the Internet claiming the moral high ground, claiming to be empathetic, who have never raised a finger to support those they claim to be empathetic towards. Instead, they just tout their empathy in order to cash in and make themselves appear better and feel better about themselves.
Naturally, I don’t think those types of people are truly empathetic to begin with, instead likely just mirroring what society or others around them are saying:
“We’re the good ones, we have empathy. Those people who disagree with us, they’re the bad ones. They lack empathy. If only the world had more empathy, like us.”
That’s essentially what I’ve seen time and time again online, mostly in political discourse, which I myself don’t partake in.
The problem is that the empathy these sort of people talk about doesn’t accomplish anything in itself. I can sit around my entire like feeling empathetic towards things and never once do anything about it. Is that really such a desirable trait?
I think what is more important than empathy itself is the resulting acts of empathy, assuming there are any.
And with acts of empathy, you are essentially attempting to solve or contribute towards solving someone else’s issue(s). The problem is, what the best solution is can be subjective.
Consider that old saying: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”.
What’s the truly empathetic solution? To give him a fish, or to teach him how to fish? If he’s starving right now, maybe giving him a fish is the more empathetic act. But if he’s just going to starve again next week, maybe investing in teaching him to fish is the more empathetic act.
Or maybe it’s both, if you can afford to both give him one of your fish and spend the time to teach him how to fish. But then what if you end up suffering as a result of putting so much effort into helping him?
The point I’m making here is that all three possible solutions could be considered acts of empathy. It’s not as black and white as people like to make it sound in political discourse, where there’s only one solution and anyone who is against it must lack empathy and be a bad person by extension.
And beyond that, how much is too much?
I think there’s definitely a line that can be crossed. Like if I was barely making ends meet, I wouldn’t think that someone selling everything they own and giving me all of the money is the best solution, even if it seems like the most generous one. Thaf would just be foolishness on their part.
Also, sometimes people don’t want your help, or your help might even inconvenience them.
An extreme example of an act of empathy going too far could be someone who finds out that their friend is in an abusive marriage – so they kill their friend’s spouse. Can this still be considered an act of empathy?
I think it could be. If the action is a result of strong feelings of empathy, that would make it an act of empathy, right? In this case, it’s a really intrusive act of empathy and doesn’t execute a proper solution to the issue, but it’s still an act of empathy, to some degree or another.
Just because someone is empathetic, doesn’t mean they’ll always act upon it in the most rational manner, right?
But if that’s the case, then can we really say that empathy itself is a virtue? When we can misconstrue it or even act out in evil ways as a result of it?
The revolutionaries behind the Russian Revolution likely felt empathetic towards the Russian people, thinking that what they were doing was for the good of the people. But that wasn’t exactly the case, as it instead resulted in death, famine, and several generations of said people living in poverty, fear, and paranoia. That initial empathy for the Russian people didn’t exactly end up working in their favour in the end.
And I guess that’s the overall message I wanted to put out there. That just because you may feel empathetic towards someone, or towards a certain cause, it doesn’t give you the moral high ground. It’s not inherently virtuous to feel that way.
I believe that it’s how you act in response to empathy that will truly determine how virtuous you are.
Many people who claim to be empathetic never act upon it, instead just opting to flap their gums on the Internet. Complaining, generating “awareness” for causes they’ve never lifted a finger towards helping, chastising others, relying on the government to solve the problem so they don’t have to do anything… there are a lot of people like this who love throwing around the word “empathy”.
It’s meaning is lost on them.
And some people seem to think that there’s only one solution to an issue, and that if people don’t agree with that solution, they must not be empathetic. There are so many ways to approach a situation that we feel empathy towards, and it’s foolish to write other people off as lacking empathy because they disagree on a proposed solution.
Anyways, that’s about all I wanted to say here.
I think that throwing around the word empathy as if it’s some inherently good or virtuous thing is a bit ignorant. But then, I also think that the sort of people that throw the word around and boast are the kind that will say anything to try and put themselves on some sort of moral high ground so they can talk down to others.
Unfortunately the Internet has put these sort of people into positions where they can do just that!
What do you all think about empathy? I know I framed it in a very cynical way, and that empathy can just as often result in good acts. But I think that at it’s core, empathy itself isn’t the virtue, just the catalyst that can lead to it.
Feel free to comment with your thoughts.
Until next time,
Thanks for reading.