Empathy as an ascetic ideal

Why would empathy not be a supreme virtue? By ’empathy,’ I mean what most laypersons mean: either feeling what another is badly feeling or acknowledging what the other is badly feeling. By ‘supreme virtue,’ I mean the virtue of virtues, one that is ripped free of context and raised to a principle. That principle would be: ‘always be empathetic toward those who are suffering.’ Nietzsche would call such a transformation of empathy into a principle an ‘ascetic ideal.’

Now, let us return to the metaphysical premise that I have denied: namely, that human beings are inherently weak creatures prone to suffering. Let us suppose that someone says, ‘Oh, what a miserable place the world is.’ The common reply from the friend is, ‘Ah, you must be going through quite a hard time. Why don’t you tell me about it?’ Or: ‘Life is tough, isn’t it?’ Or: ‘I acknowledge that you’re feeling very sad.’

In this exchange, two basic things seem to be going on. One is that both interlocutors refuse to believe that the first person is lodging a claim about the world. Such a claim would be true or false, more accurate or less so, encompassing or local. To take it as a claim is to also take the other seriously in the sense that addressee believes that the speaker is saying something interesting about the world, something that is worthy of investigating, something that may turn out to be in error. ‘Is it really miserable?’ one may be inclined to ask, provided that one recognized the other as a claim-bearing creature. Or: ‘Today you say it is miserable, but weeks ago you suggested that it was a pleasant place. Is it one or the other, or sometimes one and sometimes the other, or is it something else altogether?’ Or: ‘Sometimes things can go awry, but what is it that makes it miserable, if indeed it is miserable?’ And so on.

The other thing that is going on in this scenario is that the empathetic friend does not believe that the other can change, only that he can be ‘held in place.’ Not believing the other can change is tantamount to saying that his view of things is static. (‘It is what it is.’ ‘That is just how things are.’ ‘It is in John’s nature to be miserable.’ Etc.) When one is around him, one is in the company of someone for whom misery is ‘the way of the world’ or, if not that, at least the way of the world for him.

Buried beneath this claim-neutral and change-denying orientation toward the world is the assumption that empathy, expressed time and again, actually reinforces the metaphysical premise that human beings are essentially weak, suffering beings. The more you say this and the more I reply in kind to your presumably a-cognitive statements, the more that view of the world is ‘sedimented’ in place. As a result, even if both interlocutors deny that either of us is making claims (itself, incidentally, a claim), they nevertheless make the worldview seem ‘truer’ in light of these streams of exchanges.*

The upshot is that when empathy becomes an ascetic ideal–i.e., an ideal that is ‘good unto itself’ and that can be transformed into a moral principle: always be empathic toward those who are suffering–it follows that there can be no philosophizing. Rather, there is only passivity: a vague sense of hoping (or wishing, longing, fantasizing, etc.) for things to be otherwise. That is, for things to be otherwise or to turn out otherwise just this once or, even better, for good. But that is put everything into the hands of the gods…

* I am grateful to Aleksandra for her suggestions regarding the denial of change and the sedimentation of this worldview.