woensdag 9 december 2015

Empathy is morally neutral

The quality ‘empathy’ scores heavily nowadays. Young people are trained in it in their courses, writers call upon us to imagine what it is to be a young jihadi and in many vacancy texts candidates are expected to be able to listen empathetically.

This appreciation of empathy seems to me a good thing. The ability to place oneself in another’s position is a social skill of the highest order, and a lot of personal and business interactions would be more comfortable, if the people concerned would show some more empathy.

But saying that implicates also the demarcation of empathy’s proper place: it is primarily a social skill with pleasant social impact, nothing more and nothing less. I think that’s important to emphasize, because around me I also detect a tendency to regard empathy as a crucial moral virtue. And I find that confusing because empathy itself is morally neutral.

This may become evident from the example of torturers who are generally very empathetically gifted. They can form a clear picture of the kind of pain that they inflict to their victims. On that basis, they can rise to great creative heights in inventing ever more sadistic torturevariants. Thanks to their empathy.

Also to authors the ability to empathize can not be denied. But the messages they  spread with its aid by no means always have moral weight. Thus Willem Frederik Hermans was enabled by his empathy to write depressing misanthropic works, and to engage into vitriolic exchanges with critics. More megalomaniac writers like Harry Mulisch used their empathy especially to the honor and glory of himself.

It is certainly true that many writers use their empathic ability to understand other people. But for that too it holds true that better understanding things and people by itself is morally neutral; it can then be used in ethical ánd non-ethical ways.

Íf with someone empathy gives a positive moral effect, it is because of the link with another property. You could say that such a person is ‘sympathetic’, but that is yet another vague word. Ultimately, the real question is whether someone manages to establish a link between what he perceives in somebody else (especially in the category of pain and injuries) and his own violence, and then feels uncomfortable. The latter is crucial.

Also see Levinas and Empathy