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Empathy: Virtue or Vice?
Old 10-03-2017, 09:59 AM   #1
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Empathy: Virtue or Vice?

I've seen a host of recent threads related to misfortunes. The term "empathy" keeps coming up in a surprisingly competitive manner.

Deliberately oversimplifying, this distills into "If you don't agree with me, then either:

  • you don't have enough natural empathy and therefore are a heartless jerk, or
  • you have too much misplaced empathy and therefore are a mindless fool."
If it can be done in a friendly and collegial fashion, I'm wondering whether we can discover what we really mean by empathy. Do we mean that we feel actual physical or emotional discomfort similar to what we believe our fellow creatures are suffering? Do we sigh, shed tears, or even wince in genuine pain and fear when our minds involuntarily conjure images of ourselves in the same unfortunate situation?

Perhaps most importantly, do these feelings translate into actions? Can we honestly say we have empathy if all we do is endure a transient unpleasant thought and then dismiss it?



Or suppose we do act on them but our actions only make the problem worse; did we really have empathy for the sufferer or did we just selfishly want to rid ourselves of guilt? Suppose our actions are merely to learn from others' mistakes and avoid similar outcomes; was it really empathy?



If we don't experience these feelings, does that mean we don't have empathy? At what point is it allowable that our own problems overwhelm an otherwise robust concern for others?

If we are certain that empathy is important, then instead of condemning shouldn't we feel empathy for someone who lacks empathy?

It is said that "hard cases make bad law". Just as you wouldn't offer a cocktail to an alcoholic, how do you differentiate when real love for financial casualties is tough love? Perhaps empathy, like whiskey, is a good thing only in limited doses. Too much of either leads to poor decisions.

I welcome your thoughtful perspectives.
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Old 10-03-2017, 10:24 AM   #2
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I wouldn't sell empathy short.

Simple examples from personal experiences:

1) While working on a crisis hotline, got a call from an elderly woman who just wanted someone to talk to. So talked for a few minutes and she felt better

2) While at w*rk, I got stuck alone in an elevator. While the maintenance folks were called to get me out, a security guard waited outside so I wouldn't feel claustrophobic. I remember telling him that he really didn't have to, but he did and that did offer some comfort.

IMO, empathy, like so many things falls on a continuum which goes somewhat like (from lowest to highest):

- downright cruel (sadistic)
- lacks the ability to feel
- sympathetic
- empathetic
- empathetic and action oriented to raise social consciousness
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Old 10-03-2017, 10:26 AM   #3
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I think you summarized it well, with all the grades of thought about the subject.

I personally don't want to get further in the discussion on this forum. My writing is poor, and there were some pretty harsh barbs thrown at me on the other thread ("if it makes you feel better..."). Without a good means to discuss in real time, I find this subject way too difficult to go to here. And I'm not sure I want to share my deep convictions and actions on the subject here anyway.
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Old 10-03-2017, 10:33 AM   #4
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lol, wow that's alot.

ok first and foremost, I am in no way a psychologist. I don't even play one on TV. lol Ilm just a gal from NYC trying to do the best she can with the time given to her, oh and find a 99 year old rich sugar daddy with no kids.

I think as a general rule "humans" are naturally emphatic beings. I think we do actually feel physical and emotional suffering when others are in pain.

We also have the ability to discern when there is too much or not enough.

for example it seems like September and October have been rough on us as a country but I really do believe we show what we are made of when the provebial &^& hits the fan.

I'm willing to bet that 99.9% of the folks felt real physical pain from the events in Las Vegas.

now as far as financial empathy, I think tough love is real love. I think our greatest assets is that we are able to discern and differentiate. I can tell the difference between my girlfriend who is going through hard times due to a painful divorce and my cra cra cousin who is going through hard times because he has spent the last 50 years avoiding working like "that" was a full time job and I can act accordingly.
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Old 10-03-2017, 11:19 AM   #5
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Usually a virtue, although in excess it can become a vice.
At a minimum, it means me realizing that everyone is different and in different situations, and therefore I should make an effort to understand perspectives and opinions that are different than mine.
If the other person is suffering, and I help them, that's a virtue, but it goes beyond my strict definition.
If I see other people suffering, and deprive myself out of guilt, then empathy has crossed the line and become a vice.
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Old 10-03-2017, 01:10 PM   #6
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I try to help people out, usually non-financially, when the marginal cost to me is very small, and the benefit to them can be large.

Case and point -- I come across someone with a car with a dead battery. If I have jumper cables and don't need to be anywhere, I will gladly help to get them going again.

I feel good about it.

-gauss
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Old 10-03-2017, 01:32 PM   #7
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Fascinating subject. When I saw the title of this thread it reminded me of a podcast I listened to where the psychologist Paul Bloom was discussing his latest book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

In a nutshell, he argues that the narrow-minded, irrational, parochial nature of empathy distorts our moral judgment in many important areas of our lives. To give one simple example, we are much more likely to feel empathy for people or animals that we find cute, cuddly, or familiar/similar to ourselves in some way than with "ugly", strange, or unfamiliar ones, even though the latter may in fact be suffering in much larger numbers or be in much greater need of our help. This leads to morally questionable situations where charities that help save oil-soaked seabirds in Alaska often rake in more donations than those distributing anti-mosquito nets to millions of people in malaria-prone African countries.

Here is a link to the podcast. The discussion about empathy starts at around the 20 minute mark. https://www.samharris.org/podcast/it...-of-cold-blood
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Old 10-03-2017, 01:43 PM   #8
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Actually when you have sympathy for someone if can impact your decisions and it elevates you to a higher level then the other person. It is better to have empathy since you understand their pain and can make better decisions if you want to help in some way. Also sometimes it is impossible to really know how a person feels. For example, if someone's child dies you can empathize but deep down you will never know it actually feels unless you experience it yourself.
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Old 10-03-2017, 02:37 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sojourner View Post
Fascinating subject. When I saw the title of this thread it reminded me of a podcast I listened to where the psychologist Paul Bloom was discussing his latest book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

In a nutshell, he argues that the narrow-minded, irrational, parochial nature of empathy distorts our moral judgment in many important areas of our lives. To give one simple example, we are much more likely to feel empathy for people or animals that we find cute, cuddly, or familiar/similar to ourselves in some way than with "ugly", strange, or unfamiliar ones, even though the latter may in fact be suffering in much larger numbers or be in much greater need of our help. This leads to morally questionable situations where charities that help save oil-soaked seabirds in Alaska often rake in more donations than those distributing anti-mosquito nets to millions of people in malaria-prone African countries.

Here is a link to the podcast. The discussion about empathy starts at around the 20 minute mark. https://www.samharris.org/podcast/it...-of-cold-blood
Thanks for the share...I have been interested in finding some new podcast subject areas to listen to when I am out and about. The 7 Top 40 stations around here and listening to depressing news/talk isn't good for my soul.

As to the subject of empathy, I think there is a fine line. It's hard to quantify in words, but I would say it's like a social worker who is burdened with 100 child abuse cases or a NICU nurse...both jobs that require a LOT of empathy, but you have to separate that feeling with your own life, otherwise it could result in very serious mental hygiene issues. In other words, I care...really, I do...but I can't let it "bring me down". Not sure if that is even a cohesive thought or not.
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Old 10-03-2017, 04:49 PM   #10
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For me, empathy is largely the act of remembering that I don't have all the facts and my temptation to criticize and judge others is based on only part of the story. That isn't to say that I won't call out behaviors that I think are harmful, selfish, etc. but I try not to extrapolate to someone's character based on them.

That being said, our character is often the sum of our behaviors. If someone regularly does jerkish things, eventually one can reasonably conclude that they actually are a jerk. There would need to be a preponderance of evidence in the other direction to change that conclusion.
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Old 10-06-2017, 10:28 AM   #11
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Saw this article this morning. I guess empathy is good for the sole, but bad for your health..

https://www.washingtonpost.com/natio...8cc_story.html
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Old 10-06-2017, 10:31 AM   #12
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Originally Posted by kite_rider View Post
I guess empathy is good for the sole, but bad for your health..
So I doesn't heel you?
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