How Important is Empathy?
It is everything.
And you can go ahead and say that I am projecting my personal belief system or that there is no objective standard to hold people to or whatever. If that’s what it takes for you to rationalize being a douchebag, awesome. We have two tasks, to do what you enjoy (happiness through excellence) and to be a good person (integrity via empathy and honesty).
I’m sure you’ve dealt with someone who flabbergasted you with their narcissism. How could they treat me like that? They’re stunning in their lacking ability to think of anything outside themselves. How can you walk around screaming on yourself when people are clearly trying to concentrate? They never stopped to think that maybe you’re sensitive about something. Why are you such a black hole? They would never accept you treating them that way. Why are you such a hypocrite? It all comes down to being devoid of empathy–purposefully or unintentionally blocking their humanness.
I don’t know why, but I have trouble with this myself. How do you step away from being wrapped up in your own selfish desires, your own cognitively biased mind, or desire to “win” and actually consider what is right? It’s really easy to be cold or uncaring or snap because you’re tired. The path to progress and improvement is in the resistance to that. When you stop and think why we’re pushed to act that way (selfishly) you see that it’s sort of a perverted modern adaption to the desire to accumulate as much as we can, fuck as many women to have as many kids who we then give those things away to as a head start. You don’t get to take any of that with you when you die.
Think about industrial society. It satiates literally every human need. I have obese homeless people on my street. Our abundance gets us all twisted up. And of course I’m not saying that you can do without these evolutionarily ingrained benchmarks for happiness–the feeling of a woman’s biological clock running out isn’t a societal creation–but really, what do they fucking matter? If I put an entire cake in front of you, you might be tempted to eat it–but should you? Does it truly make you feel good, or does it just address an instinctual urge?
Which brings me back to my actual point: Empathy. It’s what makes us worthy of the rest of the stuff. That’s what Frankl said, that the one thing that industry and technology will never be able to do is satisfy “the need to find and fulfill a meaning in our lives.” That onus is on us.
The Golden Rule is cliche, but nevertheless the ethos of being good. Treat other people, as you wish to be treated. And understand that it is a human struggle–you fail all the time at it–so don’t hold it against people when they do. I don’t want to give the wrong idea, I am so fucking far from the ideal I put forth here. I sit back sometimes and am appalled and shamed by my own behavior. Saying that you think empathy is important really isn’t all that impressive either. At the end of the day, do you or don’t you make it a priority?
I was studying in the library one time when a guy came in and was obliviously talking loudly to his female companion, despite it obviously being full of people. I waited a few minutes to see if he’d stop, but it became obvious that he wasn’t going to. Looking around to the other quiet residents I saw they were just as aggravated by his rudeness and decided to do something in the interest of the majority.
Taking it upon myself to stand up for everybody else and said, in an unintentionally aggravated tone, “Yo man: You wanna be quiet?” He nervously responds, his eyes wide open and nodding very quickly, “Yeah sure.”
Under his breath, and clearly audible in the silent library he bitches to the girl he came in with about “some people” and I snap.
“It’s a LIBRARY, man.”
Not the most persuasive or damaging thing I could have said, but that action was more than anybody else did, opting to just wait out the annoyance. In a situation like that, handling it without some sort of aggression would be like letting a transgression get away unpunished. If two wrongs (selfish actions) don’t make a right how can you look out for yourself and maintain a sense of empathy at the same time?
A side point really — but keep in mind that it is more than possible to be obese and malnourished. In fact, perversely, in America the cheapest foods are those most likely to make you fat (while providing little actual nutrition… Empty carbs, processed corn syrup, globs of fat.) And yet, because you’re malnourished, you lose energy, feel sluggish, are still hungry, cognitive abilities suffer, and poor nutrition contributes to hugely to depression. Then to top it off some jackass (not you) is always is proudly proclaiming somewhere, “In America, our poor people are fat!” like it’s a good thing, as a defense mechanism against acting with the empathy you’re talking about.
I agree somewhat with Alex. Also does empathy impact social forces that influence future decisions like a chain reaction?
Right of course, but do you know what a Freegan is? Capitalism supports a sizable population literally off it’s own waste. That is my point.
I have known a friend for most of my life who is the most unbelievably rude and selfish person I know; one who manages always to be short of funds and scrounges from people around him to satisfy his immediate impulses, for example, and snaps rudely at his company.
Interestingly, our mutual friend is the most polite and selfless person I know. He is always willing to help someone out, even at his own expense, and never expects any payment in return.
Being in the company of these two contrasting personalities (their tastes in music and drugs brings them together), one sees the first friend exploiting the generosity of the other for his own gain, time after time, without an ounce of gratitude. I see firsthand on one level the nobility of the mutual friend, but on another his weakness, the futility of the “ethos of being good” in such company.
I’ve talked to the generous friend about this situation; he resents it but I don’t think he’ll change.
Is this too much or too little empathy on his part?
Alex’s question is really interesting, it’s something we all face every day. Even if it’s a pretty arbitrary case, I think it’d be interesting to discuss what Frankl would say in light of his “logotherapeutic imperative” as I think he called it:
“Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.”
In a situation like that, handling it without some sort of aggression would be like letting a transgression get away unpunished. If two wrongs (selfish actions) don’t make a right how can you look out for yourself and maintain a sense of empathy at the same time?
First of all you’ve got to recognize that the greatest human freedom is to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances. The guy talking too loudly in the library may have “transgressed” the common courtesy laws of the library, and then you by implying you were out of order, but you’ve gotta ask yourself what getting aggressive about it was in service of. At the level of the ego, you him look inconsiderate and foolish and then he tried to retain some self-respect by trying to turn the tables – to which you responded by cutting him down again. It’s my opinion that you shouldn’t be asking yourself whether or not what he did was fair, or whether you needed to get aggressive to “look out for yourself”; the challenge of empathy is to transcend your own urges to self-preservation. In this case, your selfish urge to not have your ego transgressed, which was what you were actually upset about when you cut him down the second time, is relatively arbitrary. Empathy would have been going beyond your ego and seeing that the battleground (of self-preservation of the ego) you engaged him on is only a facet of your common humanness – you could have retained your dignity by just asking him to be quiet, and allowing him to continue to be childish and petty if he wanted to. Instead your egos clashed, and he ended up looking like a huge fool, and you only a lesser one.
“If I take man as he is, I make him worse; if I take him as he ought to be, I make him become what he can be.”
Yes, by acting like a douche in the library he did “transgress” the rules and should have been asked to quiet down, which he _ought_ to have been doing anyway. When his ego got hurt and he acted like a petty child the challenge was to take him as he _ought_ to be acting, expect a higher standard from him; really all that was justified was disappointment in the guy.
If two wrongs (selfish actions) don’t make a right how can you look out for yourself and maintain a sense of empathy at the same time?
You could have resisted the urge to self-preservation and still retained your dignity (or ‘looked out for yourself’) because you would have transcended the petty battlefield of the ego, and challenged the guy to do the same. Even though he _didn’t_, he _ought_ to have, and holding him to that standard _is_ empathy.
That’s my take, but I just read Frankl last night and I’d be interested in seeing what Ryan has to say.
BTW – It’d be great if we could italicize or bold sections of text in these comments.
Oh yeah, don’t take it as me knocking against capitalism. God knows I’m going to be relying on a robust capitalist system if I want any chance of supporting myself doing what I love.
We’re probably mostly in agreement – A capitalist system with individuals who have actually fostered empathy will create value AND social justice.
I’m just saying (again, as a sidenote not detracting from your argument) that the happy conclusion most people draw from the of obesity among poor people is illusory, and is often an impediment to fostering empathy by making people think there is no problem.
How can you be happy on the rack when your happiness comes through excellence? Does that mean that your happiness at any certain point is only determined by your excellence in work, or lack of, in all points preceding?
It seems like chasing excellence might just be preparing for one day being on the rack.
There is always the argument for living in the present. But it takes a large amount of wisdom, and I can often feel like it means brushing future ambitions aside.
Good post, Ryan. Your ideas seem very similar to Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughter-House Five. He discusses all of the atrocities committed in the War and how people react to them. At the end of the book he describes his moral credo: do whatever you like, but you have to be kind.
This also reminds me of a post I wrote in my blog a couple of days ago about how just because we embrace our own narcissism doesn’t mean that we have to think of ourselves as better than others. I also mention Frankl. Check it out if you have the time.
Excellence in restraint, excellence in fortitude, excellence in justice…
Empathy itself is actually astonishingly difficult for some people to achieve. To actually be able to think as another person would, to understand them to the core of their being, is generally impossible in the situations you have described, unless you take into account the belief that the core of their being is the same as yours, and you break things down that way.
Either way, biases are very difficult to strip, so while I think it is a good idea to go out into the world with the objective of being more empathic towards others, it is more realistic to be sympathetic towards others; while you understand someone’s position, you do not understand how they handle it, you merely understand or believe you understand how you would handle it, and are sympathetic.
Very, very interesting comment by Matt. I have never read Frankl, but I want to now.
You will never profit from these idiotic ramblings.
_We have two tasks, to do what you enjoy (happiness through excellence) and to be a good person (integrity via empathy and honesty)._
Sounds like a mix of Mills utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative (humanity formula interpretation), free in pursuit of higher pleasures as long as the lengths to which one goes to achieve that excellence does not cause the treatment other people as mere means, but rather as ends in and of themselves.
I’m a Christian, and I struggle with being empathetic all the time. I’m terrible at it. I just remember what Paul says in Romans:
15I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing… 21So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.
Ain’t nobody perfect – just gotta keep working at it!
Scott you cut out some of the most relevant parts of that passage:
… evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.
I’ve found that a lot of what Paul writes about is reminiscent of Greek philosophy and more specifically Aristotelian ethics, just utilizing a different explanatory framework. The downside of all that is that it also lends itself to some really perverted interpretations.
Thanks for answering my question. Ryan’s article let me see the logic in empathy, but I couldn’t fully comprehend it.
“You could have resisted the urge to self-preservation and still retained your dignity (or ‘looked out for yourself’) because you would have transcended the petty battlefield of the ego, and challenged the guy to do the same.”
Reprimanding the loud kid in the library was a petty thing to do on my part. If I had instead looked at the situation with empathy and not have engaged in a fight of egos he might have quieted down more freely, his pride unhurt. I would even have been better off for resisting the temptation to feed my ego by attacking someone who was only inadvertently offending me.
The challenge of empathy is to recognize it as a choice in the right situations, even if you act a different way. And each time you choose empathy you’re making your path towards a free conscious less cluttered.
That’s at least what I’ve taken away from this discussion and I hope it makes sense to others.
You’re right but since I know Ryan is not fond of religion I left those parts out.
I will note that Paul was well versed in Hebrew scriptures and Greek philosophy. As evidenced by his oratory in Athens where he uses klogic to talk to them. “I become all things to all men for Christ”
You guys can talk about religion all you want. I just happen to be an atheist.
Stephen Covey deals with this somewhat in ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The 5th habit is “Seek first to Understand, Then to be Understood.” Basically, one reason people have trouble communicating is due to the autobiographical Response–they simply cannot see outside their prism of understanding and revert to four methods of response based on their own experiences:
Instead, Covey recommends these four solutions that help build emphatic responses:
-Mimic the content
-Rephrasing the content
-Reflect the feeling
-Rephrase the content and reflect the feeling.
As simple as it sounds, it wasn’t until I read it that I realized how much of a difference acting out the four steps above could be in virtually all levels of interaction.
This post is awesome. You can totally feel your angst and even some serious contradictions given the topic. Emphasizing obese about people you have no knowledge of is quite hypocritical in this context. I love it. It’s so real just how hard it is to not judge in our society.