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The Paradox of Empathy

Ramsey McNabb on knowing how other people feel.

Tragically, Hector’s father is involved in a car accident and dies. Hector is devastated. An acquaintance, Anita, tells him that she knows just how he feels. Angered at her presumption, he responds, “No, you don’t know how I feel!” After all, how could she know how he feels? She doesn’t know what he is going through, what he is thinking and how he is feeling. No one can know how anyone else feels.

But here lies the paradox. If he claims that she cannot know how he feels, he is necessarily making an assertion about how she feels! If it is true that one person cannot know how another person feels, then it follows that he cannot know how she feels, and hence, he cannot know that she doesn’t know how he feels. His position is self-defeating. If he is right, he is wrong.

While it will be claimed by logical purists that this is not a genuine paradox, it does qualify as a paradox in a broader, less technical sense. We have two contrary claims that both seem to be true. One is widely accepted, and the other is the conclusion of a seemingly sound argument. The first is intuitively true – no one can ever know how another person feels or thinks. After all, everyone is unique and has unique experiences, and further, it does not seem possible for any person to have epistemic access to the thoughts and feelings of another. The second deductively follows from the first – since no one knows how anyone else feels, no one can know that others have not had identical feelings.

To deny that empathy is possible is a problem, since it is highly valued in the fields of ethics, medicine, education, and elsewhere. Without empathy for others, it is not clear why we would ever be motivated by anything other than selfishness. Indeed, a person with a complete lack of empathy might rightly be classified as an amoral sociopath. In medicine, empathy for their patients’ experiences (symptoms, feelings) enables doctors to diagnose and treat them more effectively, and with greater compassion. Empathy enables teachers and other educators to grasp the particular problems and needs of students.

On the other hand, the impossibility of empathy, and the importance of uniqueness of experience is a highly treasured ‘truth’ in current education and social justice theory. To presume to know how another person feels is to strip that person of his or her separateness and uniqueness. It is especially offensive to people who have been victims of one form or another of oppression when members of the privileged group claim to know how they feel. For example, Diana Meyers states: “The metaphor of putting oneself in the other’s shoes is misleading, for it is a mistake to assume that the other feels the same way as one would oneself feel in the same circumstances.” See her ‘Difference, Empathy, and Impartial Reason’, Subjection & Subjectivity: Psychoanalytic Feminism & Moral Philosophy, (Routledge, 1994). Also, in 1992, when Bill Clinton made his infamous “I feel your pain” comment, many people were offended and criticized him for his declaration of empathy.

Hector’s claim that Anita doesn’t know how he feels is somewhat ambiguous. Does he mean that she doesn’t know exactly how he feels? If so, he might think that no matter how she feels, it must be different than how he feels. Or does he mean that she has no idea how he feels? In other words, that she does not have an adequate understanding of his mental state. The general principles underlying these two interpretations of Hector’s claim might be stated as follows:

(1) It is impossible for one person to know the exact feelings of another person.

(2) It is impossible for one person to adequately understand the feelings of another person.

Regardless of which sort of claim Hector is making, the logic of that claim falls apart. If Hector is making the first sort of claim – that Anita doesn’t know his precise feelings, then he should have some reason or justification for making such a claim. But what reason could he possibly give? After all, he is vehemently asserting that no one has epistemic access to anyone else’s mind. Therefore, he does not have access to her mind either. Apart from psychics, no one can look into another person’s mind and see exactly what is going on inside. Sadly, his only recourse would seem to be to appeal to the notion that since every person is unique, no two people can ever feel exactly the same way or understand precisely how the other feels. Well, once again, we can ask him for evidence. “Prove it,” we can say, and he just won’t be able to meet the challenge, at least not without psychic powers.

It might be argued that no proof is needed to establish that uniqueness between all humans entails the impossibility of any two people feeling precisely the same way. It could be claimed, in other words, that it is necessarily true that no two people could have identical feelings. But I don’t see this as a reasonable response. It might necessarily be true that since every person is unique, the sum of each person’s feelings differs from the sums of the feelings of others. But that is a tautology. Anita certainly wasn’t claiming that all of her thoughts are the same as all of Hector’s thoughts. That would be akin to claiming that her mind is his mind, and she couldn’t have meant that. While the fact that people are unique establishes that the sums of their feelings would differ, it does not entail that two people cannot have identical feelings with regard to some specific issue.

So, can Hector prove that Anita and he cannot have a single identical thought? No, since it would require direct access to her mind, and he doesn’t have that. Can Hector establish that since people are necessarily unique, it is impossible for them to have an identical thought with regard to some certain subject or issue? No, since proving such a claim would once again require access to the mind of another. Whether or not two people can feel precisely the same way about an issue is up in the air, then, and cannot be used as evidence against Anita’s understanding of Hector’s mental state.

If Hector is only claiming that Anita does not know his exact state of mind, then one wonders why he would speak up in the first place. First, he cannot even provide any evidence for his claim, and second, his claim seems irrelevant. Anita could rightly (though perhaps insensitively, given the grisly circumstances) say, “so what if I don’t exactly understand your feelings? I adequately understand your feelings.”

If Hector is saying anything worthwhile, he should be making the second sort of claim – that Anita does not adequately understand his feelings. If he takes that approach, then he would seem to be claiming that there is a relevant difference between Anita’s supposed understanding of Hector’s feelings, and Hector’s actual feelings. Once again, it would seem that for Hector to compare his own feelings to Anita’s supposed understanding of his feelings, he would need to have quite a good understanding of Anita’s understanding of his feelings. And how can he get that? To establish that she can’t justifiably make a claim about the goings on in his mind, he needs to make a claim about the goings on in her mind. And if he can justifiably make a claim about what is going on in her mind, then it seems she should be able to make a claim about what is going on in his mind as well. So it seems that Hector is on a worse footing than Anita, since she is merely making a claim about his thoughts, whereas he is assuming something about Anita to show her that she should not assume things about him. Her claim might be presumptuous, but his is presumptuous and self-defeating.

René Descartes would certainly support Hector in claiming that his thoughts, feelings, and even his experiences are private. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help Hector much, because it also follows from Descartes’ view, bordering on solipsism, that Anita’s mind is private. Therefore, Hector cannot comment on her state of mind.

Hector’s claim that Anita does not know how he feels also places a limit on Anita’s faculty of imagination. Even when we have not had the exact same experience as another person, we commonly think we know or can imagine how another person feels. We engage in the construction of what Hume would think of as complex ideas, which we compile from the many simple ideas we already have. So, we might think we understand how it feels to have a dearly beloved aunt die, even though we have never lived through such an event. Our experience of our dearly beloved uncle dying, in addition to our experiences with our dearly beloved aunt, allow us to understand how we would feel if our aunt died.

So, how does Hector know that Anita cannot have an adequate, or even an exact imagination of his mental state? Ludwig Wittgenstein states:

Could someone understand the word ‘pain’, who had never felt pain? – Is experience to teach me whether this is so or not? – And if we say “A man could not imagine pain without having sometime felt it” – how do we know? How can it be decided whether it is true? (Philosophical Investigations §315)

Wittgenstein’s point here is that there does not seem to be any way to prove that it is impossible to properly imagine someone else’s state of mind. In Hector’s case, what criterion could he use to prove that Anita doesn’t know how he feels? Once again, it seems clear that he would need to establish Anita’s state of mind to prove his point, and establishing the state of mind of another person is precisely what he is saying is not possible. Elsewhere, Wittgenstein offers another argument that seems favourable to empathy. According to Wittgenstein, without our ability to share concepts and respond in similar ways, language and communication would be impossible.

Perhaps Hector has a special reason for thinking that Anita doesn’t know how he is feeling. Suppose, for example, that Hector’s father sexually abused him when he was young, and he has never told Anita about this. In such a case, Hector’s claim might be reasonable. Although, strictly speaking, he is still without access to her mind, so some doubt, however minuscule it might be, remains. She might know this fact about Hector despite the fact that Hector thinks she doesn’t know. But the point here is that it may sometimes be reasonable to doubt that another person knows how you feel if you have some crucial piece of information of which they are entirely unaware – a piece of information that affects how you feel. You may still believe it is possible for people to understand the feelings of others. You just think that in this case, they don’t.

It seems to me that the above case – the case with missing information, is the only time that it makes sense to say that someone could not know how you feel. Merely claiming that your experience is unique is not sufficient reason to deny the possibility of empathy. However, as stated above, the impossibility of empathy, and the importance of uniqueness of experience is a highly treasured ‘truth’ in current education and social justice theory, and in such writings, it seems to be uniqueness and not a lack of information, that is held responsible for the impossibility of empathy. The disadvantaged may certainly have legitimate complaints against the advantaged, and the advantaged might be missing certain facts, or at least not placing sufficient importance on them. However, if the facts are laid out and agreed upon, then the mere fact that the disadvantaged have unique experiences is not sufficient to establish that the advantaged are incapable of empathy.

Unless Hector is objecting on the grounds of missing information, his claim must be rejected, regardless of whether he is objecting to the exactness or the adequacy of Anita’s understanding. Each of the two claims, (1) and (2), as stated above, are highly questionable, if not downright wrong. The first, that it is impossible for one person to know the exact feelings of another person, is completely without justification, and entirely irrelevant. The second claim, that it is impossible for one person to adequately understand the feelings of another person, is also without justification, and seems highly counterintuitive. After all, most of us do sometimes think we understand how others feel, even if only in certain situations. Also, anyone who makes one of these claims is engaging in a self-defeating activity, since they would be arguing that we should not presume to know the thoughts of others, yet that is precisely what they would be doing. In other words, disproving the possibility of empathy requires empathy. We must conclude therefore, that arguing against the possibility of empathy is a futile pursuit.

© Ramsey McNabb 2005

When he is not working on his Ph.D. dissertation in Philosophy at York University in Canada, Ramsey McNabb is a husband, father, amateur artist and carpenter, science-fiction fanatic, football coach, and full-time grade six teacher.

• This discussion is treating thought and feeling as interchangeable concepts. The key issue here is whether a person can know what is going on in another person’s mind, be it feelings, thoughts or anything else.

Chuang-Tzu and Empathy

Interestingly enough, something very like the paradox of empathy which Ramsey McNabb identifies is mentioned in one of the classics of ancient Chinese philosophy – the Chuang-tzu (composed 4th-2nd century BC). The Daoist sage Chuang-tzu discusses it with his old friend, the logician Hui Shih:

Chuang-Tzu and Hui Shih were strolling on the bridge above the Hao river. “Out swim the minnows, so free and easy,” said Chuang-tzu. “That’s how fish are happy.”
“You are not a fish. Whence do you know that the fish are happy?”
“You aren’t me, whence do you know that I don’t know the fish are happy?”
“We’ll grant that not being you I don’t know about you. You’ll grant that you are not a fish, and that completes the case that you don’t know the fish are happy.”
“Let’s go back to where we started. When you said, ’Whence do you know that the fish are happy?’, you asked me the question already knowing that I knew. I knew from up above the Hao.”
(Chuang-tzu, chapter 17, translated by A.C.Graham)


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