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.

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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.’

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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.’

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On a category mistake: ‘Human beings are weak’

Here are three questions that fascinate me:

1.) How did we go from being creatures who above all ‘desire to know’ (Aristotle, Metaphysics I)–let us say: to understand our place in the world–to being creatures who want most of all to be helped (modernity)?

2.) How did the accidental property of weakness (e.g., feeling weak on Tuesday) become a state or condition (Smith IS weak; human beings ARE weak)?

3.) How was it possible for compassion (or: empathy or pity) to become championed as the supreme virtue of all virtues today?


Consider the category mistake made in the second claim. By ‘category mistake,’ the philosopher Gilbert Ryle means the attribution of certain properties that rightly belong to one category to another category. For instance, although the body certainly has appendages, it seems to me a category mistake to claim that the mind ‘has’ ‘faculties.’

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