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Empathy & Imagination

by Rick Lewis

What is empathy? It is usually defined as the ability to ‘identify with’ another person. It seems to involve having a good sense of what the other person is feeling, and not merely with an air of scientific detachment, but knowing in the sense of sharing. But is empathy in fact possible? After all, people are so very complicated and we have no direct access to the minds of others. How do we know what they think, or what they feel? How do we know if they think anything at all? Maybe they are all just zombies, or robots, to give two examples that often crop up in philosophy of mind? Nonetheless, we do sometimes think that we empathize with one another. If I see you accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer, I wince.

There seem to be two kinds of philosophical problem connected with empathy. The first is to try to establish how much we really can share other people’s mental states and emotions. Here we come across various epistemological questions – questions about what we can know. Three articles in this issue touch on these questions to a greater or lesser extent. Ramsey McNabb describes an interesting paradox connected with the whole idea of knowing whether we can know other people’s feelings. Michael Philips thinks we can have such knowledge – and that this fact is incompatible with the popular idea that the universe is entirely physical. Bora Dogan looks at whether technology could give us access to other people’s minds.

The second kind of problem connected to empathy has to do with ethics and society – does it matter whether we understand other people’s feelings? Firstly, socially it is a good thing. It is nice to be surrounded by people of a sympathetic disposition. Empathy makes communication and co-operation between people much easier and more pleasant. Secondly, it is important when assessing the behaviour of another. They say that before you judge someone you should walk a mile in their shoes. But how far should we carry this? We wouldn’t say in criminal law that to know all is to forgive all.

British society is said to have become much more ‘touchy-feely’ after the death of Princess Diana. Her death in a car accident in 1997 sparked a week of mourning with startling displays of public grief. But is a ‘touchy-feely’ society a good thing? Why did people previously think it was a good thing to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’ and repress outward signs of strong emotions?

One or two major philosophers have based their whole approach to ethics on the idea of empathy. David Hume was perhaps the first to do so. He said roughly that if you see someone experience a pain, then in the act of imagining it you experience the pain too. Therefore naturally you want to alleviate the pain of others so far as you are aware of it. Hume thought that such ‘sentiments’ provide the basic motive for acting well towards other people, though of course the particular questions of how we should act well, and balance conflicting claims, is the subject matter of moral philosophy.

Arthur Schopenhauer followed a similar line of thought. Timothy Madigan explains how Schopenhauer’s moral theory – if not generally speaking his own actions – were based on compassion.

An alternative way to see the importance of empathy is to ask what happens when it fails. Many everyday failures of empathy are subtle, unimportant, even unnoticeable, but consider for example the 9/11 attacks on New York or (on a lesser scale) the recent London bombings. How could anyone be prepared to cause such intense pain to other human beings – the innocent victims and their families – except through a catastrophic failure of the imagination? It is as if the bombers are so selfishly wrapped up in their own grievances, ideals and sacrifice – their own drama – that they forget about the pain they will cause. This is surely also true of innumerable acts of war, terrorism and mass destruction down the ages, and military leaders often try to deaden their followers’ empathy towards the ‘foe’ precisely because it is an impediment to the efficient conduct of slaughter. Of course, if we could have perfect empathy towards everyone at once, we’d be overwhelmed and paralysed by all the suffering in the world. But having a reasonable degree of empathy at least for those immediately around them saves people from selfishness and barbarity.


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