Some very awkward truths about empathy

In the last handful of posts, I have sought to demonstrate some rather uncomfortable and infelicitous things about our near-universal celebration of empathy. One is that it is based on a false metaphysical picture of human beings as weak, suffering creatures. Another is that it has been raised from a ‘local virtue’ into an ascetic ideal, with the result that many unthinkingly insist that one always ought to show empathy toward the other. A third is that it closes us off from regarding ourselves as claim-bearing and conversion-ready beings: that is, as persons who make claims and take each other’s claims seriously and, by taking these claims seriously, believe that our world understanding can be radically altered (call this last: conversion). I have gone on to argue in the last post that we can do just fine without empathy in the lion’s share of our ethical exchanges.

However, one assignment remains and that is to figure out in what sorts of scenarios empathy would be at home. Yet sharpening our focus concerning empathy’s proper place may turn out to reveal some very awkward things about our modern metaphysico-ethical picture.


To bring the place of empathy into sharper focus, below I discuss four different cases.

Case 1: A young child is drowning in the pond and is unable to swim to safety. You observe that this is the case; you are able to dive and swim and have the strength to pull him out. Without a moment’s hesitation, you jump in to rescue him. (For more on my moral reasoning regarding this kind of case, you can read this post.)

Case 2: An old man is walking with the support of a cane. You observe him as he makes his way to the stairwell located outside. You notice that he is having a hard time making his way up the stairs; you might call his movements ‘labored’; it can be deduced from your observations that his goal is to go upstairs (perhaps with more distant goal of going shopping at the store located on the second floor). Were you to describe your state of awareness, you would call it alertness or readiness. After some foundering attempts at getting going, the old man manages to go one stair at a time, albeit in a rather strained sort of way. You do nothing and walk away.

Case 3: You are alone in the wild when you come upon a large wild animal, which is stuck in a trap. It is clear that it wants to free itself yet cannot do so on its own. Also clear is the fact that were you to step in to free the animal, it would likely attack you, causing you considerable harm. You do not leave but you would rather not stay. You do nothing and feel great empathy for this creature.

Case 4: A good friend tells you that, through no fault of her own, she is saddled with more debt than she could ever repay. (In this case, go along with these suppositions and those that follow.) Suppose that she is right about not being able to repay (since, e.g., she will never be able to make enough to do so) and suppose further that there exists no third party that could assist her: no governmental agency, no meditator, no jubilee, etc. Finally, let us say that you do not have the funds to offer her nor would it ever be possible for you to secure them (except perhaps by unlawful means). You do not leave her, but you would rather not stay. You do nothing and feel great empathy for her.


What do these cases reveal?

1. The case of the drowning child is a clear case of rescuing a helpless being, that is, a human being who cannot act on his own behalf in order to free himself from likely death. This child is weak (i.e., cannot swim to safety on his own) while you are strong (i.e., you can dive, swim, and pull him ashore). Hence, you are morally justified when you say afterward: ‘I acted as I did in order to save a being who would otherwise perish.’

2. The case of the old man is a clear case of non-intervention. The old man is able to act on his own behalf in order to reach his goal. The fact that he is proceeding slowly, gingerly, and painstakingly does not give you reason to ‘jump in’ to help him. Were you to do so, he might be angry (and with good reason) with you. Just because someone is struggling with something does not mean it is a good thing to violate his autonomy simply in order to make things easier for him. (Why would making something easier for another necessarily be a good thing?) Therefore, you are morally justified were you to tell someone afterward: ‘I did not act because I perceived that the old man was perfectly able to climb the stairs on his own.’

NB. Cases 1 and 2 could be called different instantiations of wu wei: the first is the mode of necessary, undeliberative, spontaneous action, the second in the mode of properly doing nothing.

3. The case of the mean wild animal is more interesting for our purposes. You see that the animal is struggling to free itself on the basis of its wanting to live. You realize that it cannot free itself and if it does not free itself, then it will die. Furthermore, you know that you can do nothing to help him without the great likelihood that you too would be injured (fatally wounded?). Empathy justifiably arises in you, welling up out of this tragic understanding (about which more below). You might feel heavy or wring your hands or cry; any or all of these responses would be understandable and appropriate.

4. The case of the indebted friend is comparable in key respects to that of the wild animal. Like the animal, the friend is struggling to free itself from burden, yet in this case on the basis of her wanting to live flourishingly. (We can presume that this is not a question of survival but rather of human flourishing.) You know that she cannot free herself, that you cannot free her, and (going along with the suppositions) that no one else can either. There seems to be something ‘fatal’ or ‘final’ as well as bad and undesirable about the state she is in. Empathy justifiably arises in you, welling up out of this tragic understanding (about which more below). You might feel heavy or wring your hands or cry with her; you might say something about how unfair life is; you might nod when she speaks of the insufferable nature of her misery. Any or all of these responses would be understandable and appropriate.


What is the overarching structure of cases 3 and 4? The following isn’t quite intended to be a formal argument so much as a ‘basic picture.’ Numbers, then, aren’t exactly steps, though some are treated as such; they are more like parts of the whole.

1.) P can do nothing on its own behalf in order to make P’s life better.

2.) Q (you) can do nothing on P’s behalf in order to make P’s life better.

3.) There is no one else ‘in the vicinity’ (so to speak) who can do anything on P’s behalf in order to make P’s life better.

4.) So, nothing can be done by P or for P in order to make P’s life better.

5.) Consequently, P is transformed into the victim.

6.) Consequently, Q (you) are ‘compelled’ or ‘urged’ to adopt the role of the witness. (More simply, this is the sort of position that one would likely occupy in this sort of scenario, provided that one had a moral sense and didn’t just leave the scene.)

But why is P a victim and why are you a witness? That is, what makes this scene tragic?

7.) Because (a) P wants to go on living (or else: live better), (b) P is struggling (i.e., making some efforts to do so), yet (c) it is impossible for things to get better for P.

8.) Hence, empathy.

This scenario depicts empathy’s ‘proper home’: utter agentlessness and utter helplessness.


There are some awkward truths about this Ur-scenario of empathy.

Firstly, no other virtues are being exercised, invoked, or even referred to: truth-telling or courage, most notably. Particularly in case 4, P is not fully facing up to things (namely, to the possibility that either the good life is over or the good life must be grasped otherwise), Q is not speaking truthfully in the presence of P, and no one is acting courageously. Furthermore, there is no consideration of whether the one who is indebted can perform spiritual exercises in order to overcome the burden character of existence or the fear of material scarcity–about which, see here and here.

Secondly and very strangely, this Ur-scenario has become the presumed scenario of most ethical exchanges. Something like this Ur-scenario has to be the case in order for empathy to be nearly universally administered and almost unanimously endorsed. But this is startling and untrue: it can’t possibly be the case in a range of everyday cases that nothing further can be said or done. Notice, too, how an exceptionally rare Ur-scenario has ‘colonized’ our ethical lives to the point that this is the sort of scenario that seems to be presumed when one person is relating something (prima facie bad) to another.

Thirdly and obviously, this worldview underlying this Ur-scenario is held in place the more empathy is infelicitously invoked. The speaker is a weak, suffering creature and the listener is a ‘witness to pain.’

Fourthly, there is no consideration given to whether persons can be inquisitive and learn to think properly for themselves and inquire about themselves. Only, the whole thing is regarded as being exclusively a question of doing something to get someone out of something harmful. While that may be warranted in this Ur-scenario, it does not follow that most scenarios in our lived experience resemble that of the wild animal or that of the indebted woman.

All of this spells the endgame of empathy. Let go of the false metaphysico-ethical picture and you begin to let go of the ascetic ideal of empathy.