Is empathy a virtue?

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.

17 thoughts on “Is empathy a virtue?

  1. I heard this quote in a YouTube video “Every political debate can be boiled down to one question ‘what is the true definition of compassion?’ And those who forget that or fail to realize it end up hurting their cause ” ( i am paraphrasing it a little)
    Seems to be you are saying the same thing.
    Compassion without wisdom is useless, the Word says all our works will be tried by fire, and the worthless ones consumed.
    God must give some grace for good intentions but we are not much good to each other when we act rashly. Like feeding a starving person a 3 course dinner would actually kill them, but if you don’t know that, your natural compassion would prompt you to do it.
    Or a parent who has false empathy for their child and refuses to discipline them.
    We can selfishly act on feelings of sympathy just as much as on other feelings.
    I guess that is why we are told to pray and walk circumspectly, redeeming the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “All our works will be tried by fire, and the worthless ones consumed.” It’s amazing how a passage can blend in one day, and stand out the next. I never realized how powerful that one really is, I’ll definitely remember it going forward.

      That’s definitely the case. If we rely on God, our actions will be guided and true. If not, it’s the equivalent of flailing in the dark – we might think that we can find our way, but we might end up stepping on a nail, or walking off a cliff.

      Like

  2. I agree with your outlook on empathy. It feels like a buzz word, and in my corporate job I am told to display it with others. But generally me feeling “empathy” doesn’t actually end up help anyone besides the company anyways. It’s basically telling me to be nice as I tell people no.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha yeah I hear ya.

      In my first part time job at an aquarium store, when I was in grade 8, a customer once came in with some dead fish. He had purchased them that morning. Trying to relate to him, I said something like “Oh yeah, some of ours died, too.”

      I ended up getting a real verbal lashing for that from my manager after he left! A funny moment that I’ll never forget. It was the moment that I realized that in business, you have to be smart about you act on your empathy towards a customer!

      I’ve never been told to actually BE empathetic in a business setting, but it’s definitely become a buzzword that people throw around in those kind of settings.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I think that having empathy is enough during a one-on-one conversation. Sometimes, just having someone who is hearing and understanding what you are saying is enough.

    Posting on social media with no action is a different story, in my opinion. It can come across as virtue signaling and/or performative activism. Essentially boosting themselves and making themselves look good. I think we can often tell when this happens. At the same time, perhaps they did do something to support offline or without telling anyone. The Black Lives Matter movement comes to mind. I remember people were bashing everyone who didn’t post a black square on their IG and bashing those who didn’t post about BLM to raise awareness. & I didn’t agree with that because we don’t need to show screenshots of our donations and that we signed petitions. I really felt like they could have used their energy on the more important issues.

    The friend in an abusive marriage story made me think. Wouldn’t a person with a lot of empathy also try to understand where the abusive partner is coming from? I don’t think they would kill their friend’s spouse but rather, feel empathic towards both sides. Otherwise, I think that’s selective empathy… if that’s a thing.

    I think that having too much empathy is draining, to be honest. Not having it would hinder you from making genuine connections with people. I think you need empathy to feel human. However, too much can really take a toll on you and your mental wellbeing. I’ve also thought about this topic before and from a cynical lens as well lol (I can be extremely cynical and pessimistic at times but not so much lately) but yeah, I’ve reached the conclusion that you need a balance.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “Sometimes, just having someone who is hearing and understanding what you are saying is enough.” Good point. I’ve never been one to have deep conversations with others, but I do try my best to display that empathy towards others should they confide in me.

      In regards to the murder story, it could still be called an act of empathy I think. There are two forms of empathy – logical and emotional. In this case, it’d just be less logical, and more emotional. In the old days, they would have called that sort of thing a “crime of passion”.

      Yeah I can only speculate as to how it’d feel to have too much empathy, to the point where you basically beat yourself up over someone else’s situation, or where you literally can’t help but act out, even in situations where you shouldn’t. But it’s definitely a core component of humanity.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read Ethan’s post and I’ve actually blogged about the Fruits Basket story before, except I framed it as a question –> Whether the guy was foolish or not. I didn’t even think about empathy at the time, lol. In that post, I also wrote about the parallels between the story and Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince short story.

        & I think foolishness relates to your last paragraph in your comment. Having too much empathy –> beating yourself up over someone else’s situation. Is that foolish? Haha.

        Selfishness is interesting too. Is wanting to help others having empathy/altruism or is just your personal, selfish desire to make that person form a good impression of you? I mean, I don’t think it’s a bad thing (I’ve also blogged about this before LOL) but yeah. I’m kind of branching out here but I think these are all pretty related.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Yeah I’ve thought a lot about that too, the whole selfishness thing. Back in HS I used to have the belief that there’s no such thing as a truly selfless act, because there’s always some form of self gain, even if that self gain is just satisfaction. Not necessarily about appearances, just self-satisfaction.

        There’s definitely a lot of overlap between selfishness / selflessness and acts of empathy.

        For example, you are shopping for a winter coat, and you tried on one that you loved, but then you realized you couldn’t afford it. On your way out, one of the staff tells you that one of the other customers had bought the coat for you on their way out.

        That person who paid for the coat walks out with self-satisfaction. And rightfully so if you accepted it.

        But what if you reject the coat? Maybe you changed your mind, or didn’t feel right about accepting it. They wouldn’t know you rejected it, and so they would still have that self-satisfaction. And let’s say that store policy is to destroy purchased items that are unclaimed, so it won’t go to charity or something like that. Could you still call buying the coat a selfless act in that case?

        I don’t know the answer, I just think it’s an interesting scenario. Oddly specific because I know someone who was in that situation, and accepted the coat whereas I probably would have rejected it myself.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. That is a pretty specific scenario haha. Sometimes I think about these topics then I think, does it really matter in the end? Whether an action was done selfishly or selflessly, does the outcome change? Does anything change? Hm…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Empathy is certainly isn’t a virtue, in my views at least. Although there are indeed people using it to justify their actions–either good or bad-with some choosing to be bystanders, in the end, I think it all comes down to our own judgement.

    We have the ability to choose and act based on our empathy so I think to force one into accepting others’ way of showing empathy is just downright wrong. That being said, there isn’t a distinct black and write area to this, like you mentioned, because eventually no matter what kind of act of empathy you show, there’d always be criticism on it.

    And that, I think, is the sad part of our society.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed that forcing others to accepting your own way of showing empathy is wrong. There’s a line that can be crossed. Like policing everyone’s speech in order to protect some people’s feelings. How far is too far?

      And I think that’s just a part of life. We don’t know the answers, and so we can never know what is the most correct course of action in many cases. While I think criticism can often be constructive, it’s true that because of the Internet it’s becoming less and less so.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think what’s important about empathy to me is in its simple definition of at least trying to or being able to put yourselves into the shoes of others. It’s about understanding one another.

    Empathy isn’t about doing something for someone else. Of course, if you want to, within your capabilities, doing so would be entirely up to you. But to me, empathy comes first before action. It’s an emotion that encourages understanding. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all understood each other better?

    Let’s not even look at the scope of the whole world for now. Individually, empathy is an emotion that guides us to be a little more considerate to the people around us. It doesn’t always have to be something grand. It all starts with an understanding of one another.

    In your example with the abusive marriage, empathy is only in effect up till the understanding of how their friend feels regarding their own marriage. Whatever you feel about it and whatever you do about it after is just the other sets of our own emotions that guide us with how we act on what we feel — in this case, anger on behalf of your friend.

    But those are just my views on what empathy is truly about. Regarding your context, I think you made a solid point about how empathy isn’t always virtuous.

    It is indeed very true that people nowadays misuse the meaning of “empathy” to further their own agendas. You’re absolutely correct that its meaning is lost on them. Anyone that uses empathy to put themselves on a moral high ground to talk down to others aren’t being very empathetic themselves… I think what Rose said about selective empathy is very interesting and true. I guess it boils down to the fact that we’re all actually selfish in nature, and only do what’s right when it’s convenient for us. Or not haha. I don’t really know…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I agree with the simple definition and agree that it’s an important part of being human. We do need it to understand and interact with one another.

      “It’s an emotion that encourages understanding. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all understood each other better?”
      It’s possible it would, but the problem is whether such a thing is even possible. Tying into the selfish nature comment, I think that we are all inherently biased by our own lives, as we only have seen the world through our own eyes / experiences. You and I may look at the exact same situation and come to different understandings.

      Personally, I believe that we are all selfish in nature. I don’t see it as a negative, but just a fact of life, a part of human nature itself.

      Liked by 1 person

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