Being virtuous without being empathetic

So far, I have argued (1) that the ascetic ideal of empathy has sprung forth from a false metaphysical picture of human beings as weak, suffering creatures and (2) that it  leads to the conclusion that when we speak, we not do often lodge claims that can be examined with a view to changing our basic conceptions about the world. In all this, I am inquiring into how we overcome empathy as a ‘supreme virtue.’

Here, the skeptic might reply: ‘How could one get on without empathy and still be a virtuous human being?’

There are at least three ways. The first would be to say what is appropriate on the occasion without at the same time feeling sorry for the other. In this spirit, Epictetus in Enchiridion 16 writes of the proper response to the grieving person, the one who is violently weeping. He concludes by stating that one can go along ‘groaning with him, so far as words go,’ but one would do well not to groan also with him ‘in the centre of one’s being.’

Saying and doing what is appropriate is not tantamount to acting out of bad faith: one may believe that this is the appropriate thing to say to the one who is violently weeping. One may even believe that it is a good thing to groan along with him. But it is not a basic requirement that one reinforce the other’s position that death is the worst sort of thing, that bad things always befall him, yet both would be likely to happen were one to lament violently along with him. So, even in the most challenging of cases such as grieving, one needn’t be empathetic.

The second way would be to expand the powers of one’s imagination. Learning to imagine ‘what it is like to be…’ is one of the benefits of reading great fiction. One can imagine the life of Madame Bovary, but it doesn’t follow from this that one has to feel what it is like or ‘enter into’ her feelings. For instance, one could imagine what it is like to be an ant, but doing so would not entail feeling like an ant, if that is even possible. Imagining what it is like makes it possible to supply the missing premises (e.g., one only arrives an empathy as an ascetic ideal once one has imagined what sort of creature would go about seeking empathy from others), to fill out what goes unstated but is believed, to draw plausible (though not necessary) conclusions, to tell jokes and follow good hunches.

The final way is to be ‘taken with’ what someone says even if someone does not say anything that is of interest to her. It could sound trivial to someone without a keenly inquisitive mind. Someone’s claim, for instance, that ‘those people are weird’ might lead the inquisitive person to become perplexed by or fascinated with something’s being called weird. On one’s own, he might inquire, ‘What is weird about that, if it is at all weird?’ Or: ‘What sort of things must the speaker believe in order to call those people ‘weird’? Take another case: why would people believe that so and so ‘beat cancer’? Can cancer be beat? Can it be fought? Or might cancer not be the kind of thing that could be fought, battled with, and beat? (If one loses the fight with cancer, wouldn’t that make one a loser?)

Notice that being fascinated with or perplexed by the things that someone says is to involve oneself in (a) philosophical thinking whose point of departure is quiet inquisitiveness (questions left to oneself) and (b) focusing one’s attention on the thing said and not, strictly speaking, on the person who said it. Of course, one might observe that a certain kind of person might very well say that sort of thing, but then what kind of person would be inclined to say that? To know that, one would have to understood the speaker’s character.

In sum, one can say what is appropriate without feeling sorry, one can imagine what it is like without having to feel what it is like, and one can become intrigued with the things people say without assuming that such statements are cognitive-free, claim-neutral expressions.