Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Proper empathy

Empathy is usually understood as sharing in the feelings of others, and it is thought to be an important part of closer forms of human love.

I think there is a mistake here. Consider these cases, where Alice is a very close friend of Bob.

  1. Alice knows that Bob’s wife has been cheating on him, but because of the confidentiality of the source of the information, she is unable to information Bob. She constantly sees Bob enjoying his marriage and delighting in thinking of his wife’s loyalty.

  2. Last week, Bob has been informed he has a terminal disease, and is feeling the normal feelings of dread. Alice works in the medical office and has just discovered that that Bob’s file was mixed up with the file of another person of the same name, who indeed had a terminal disease and died of it two years ago, and Bob’s actual diagnosis was a clean bill of health. The office has yet to inform Bob of this.

  3. Bob is a great fan of his local hockey team. He has just found out that the star player in a team that is to play against them has just broken a leg, and is delighted, and shares his delight with Alice.

  4. Because Bob’s country used to be occupied by the Soviet Union, Bob has a visceral dislike of Russia. He has just learned that Russia won the Ice Hockey World Championship, and this makes him sad. He shares his sadness with Alice.

Cases 1 and 2 are cases where Bob is ignorant of the relevant facts, and cases 3 and 4 are ones where he is in the grip of a vice. But in none of the four cases is it appropriate for Alice to straightforwardly share in Bob’s feelings.

In case 1, Alice can be expected to feel badly for Bob, and her feeling badly is only accentuated by the fact that Bob doesn’t feel badly. In case 2, Alice would feel delighted for Bob, with the delight tempered by some a sadness that Bob is still feeling dread. But even that sadness would not take the form of dread. In case 3, Alice might share some of Bob’s joy that his preferred team will win, but she shouldn’t feel any delight at the player breaking a leg. Moreover, Alice should feel badly about her friend exhibiting a vicious joy. Finally, in case 4, Alice should feel badly, but not as a sharing in Bob’s sadness, but as a reaction to Bob’s ethnic prejudice. However, since she knows that the feelings are unpleasant ones for Bob, she might well have some sadness for his suffering, even if that suffering is vicious in nature.

These cases suggest to me that a good human friend:

  • Has a first-order share in the feelings that the friend should have (i.e., would have if they were virtuous and well-informed).

  • Has second-order feelings in reaction to the friend’s actual first-order feelings.

In many cases where the friend is virtuous and well-informed, the first-order sharing in the feelings the friend should have is also a first-order sharing in the feelings the friend does have.

This is a much more complex, and morally loaded, set of dispositions than empathy as usually defined. I don’t know that we have a good name for this complex set of dispositions. We might, of course, call it “proper empathy”, if we like.


SMatthewStolte said...

Adam Smith deals with each of these types of cases in the very first couple chapters of TMS.

Concerning the case of ignorance, our feelings do not mirror “the person principally concerned” but reflect what we feel when we imagine ourselves into the same situation.

Concerning the case of vice, he thinks that our feelings of sympathy are almost the same thing as sharing a like opinion. So if I were to share Bob’s joy at the broken leg of the opposing team’s player, that would typically amount to agreeing with Bob about some morally significant judgments. But Smith thinks that opinions aren’t as fickle as feelings. If my friend tells me that she has received some wonderful news on a day when I happen to be feeling especially depressed, I might not be able to share in her joy, but I can still imagine what I would be feeling if I were not suffering from this depression. And I will make the corresponding judgments about the matter.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Cool! I haven't read Adam Smith.