Monday, November 2, 2015

Empathy and inappropriate suffering

Consider three cases of inappropriate pains:

  1. The deep sorrow of a morally culpable racist at social progress in racial integration.
  2. Someone's great pain at minor "first world problems" in their life.
  3. The deep sorrow of a parent who has been misinformed that their child died.
All three cases are ones where something has gone wrong in the pain. The pain is not veridical. In the first case, the pain represents as bad something that is actually good. In the second, the pain represents as very bad something that is only somewhat bad. In the third, the pain represents as bad a state of affairs that didn't take place. There is a difference, however, between the first two cases and the third. In the third case, the value judgment embodied in the pain is entirely appropriate. In the first two cases, the value judgment is wrong--badly wrong in the first case and somewhat wrong in the second.

Let's say that full empathy involves feeling something similar to the pain that the person being empathized with feels. In the parent case, full empathy is the right reaction by a third party, even a third party who knows that the child had not died (but, say, is unable to communicate this to the parent). But in the racist and first-world-problem cases, full empathy is inappropriate. We should feel sorry for those who have the sorrows, but I think we don't need to "feel their pain", except in a remote way. Instead, what should be the object of our sorrow is the value system that give rise to the pain, something which the person does not take pain in.

I think that in appropriate empathy, one feels something analogous to what the person one empathizes with feels. But the kind of analogy that exists is going to depend on the kind of pain that is involved. In particular, I think the following three cases will all involve different analogies: morally appropriate psychological pain; morally inappropriate psychological pain; physical pain. I suspect that "full empathy", where the analogy involves significant similarity, should only occur in the first of the three cases.

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