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On Empathy

The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1999 edition) defines empathy as:

"The ability to imagine oneself in anther's place and understand the other's feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. It is a term coined in the early 20th century, equivalent to the German Einf - hlung and modelled on "sympathy." The term is used with special (but not exclusive) reference to aesthetic experience. The most obvious example, perhaps, is that of the actor or singer who genuinely feels the part he is performing. With other works of art, a spectator may, by a kind of introjection, feel himself involved in what he observes or contemplates. The use of empathy is an important part of the counselling technique developed by the American psychologist Carl Rogers."

Empathy is predicated upon and must, therefore, incorporate the following elements:

Imagination which is dependent on the ability to imagine;

The existence of an accessible Self (self-awareness or self-consciousness);

The existence of an available other (other-awareness, recognizing the outside world);

The existence of accessible feelings, desires, ideas and representations of actions or their outcomes both in the empathizing Self ("Empathor") and in the Other, the object of empathy ("Empathee");

The availability of an aesthetic frame of reference;

The availability of a moral frame of reference.

While (a) is presumed to be universally available to all agents (though in varying degrees) 'the existence of the other components of empathy should not be taken for granted.

Conditions (b) and (c), for instance, are not satisfied by people who suffer from personality disorders, such as the Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Condition (d) is not met in autistic people (e.g., those who suffer from the Asperger syndrome). Conditions (e) is so totally dependent on the specifics of the culture, period and society in which it exists 'that it is rather meaningless and ambiguous as a yardstick. Condition (f) suffer from both afflictions: it is both culture-dependent AND is not satisfied in many people (such as those who suffer from the Antisocial Personality Disorder and who are devoid of any conscience or moral sense).

Thus, the very existence of empathy should be questioned. It is often confused with inter-subjectivity. The latter is defined thus by "The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995":

"This term refers to the status of being somehow accessible to at least two (usually all, in principle) minds or 'subjectivities'. It thus implies that there is some sort of communication between those minds; which in turn implies that each communicating minds aware not only of the existence of the other but also of its intention to convey information to the other. The idea, for theorists, is that if subjective processes can be brought into agreement, then perhaps that is as good as the (unattainable?) status of being objective 'completely independent of subjectivity. The question facing such theorists is whether intersubjectivity is definable without presupposing an objective environment in which communication takes place (the 'wiring' from subject A to subject B). At a less fundamental level, however, the need for intersubjective verification of scientific hypotheses has been long recognized". (page 414).

On the face of it, the difference between intersubjectivity and empathy is double:

Intersubjectivity requires an EXPLICIT, communicated agreement between at least two subjects.

It involves EXTERNAL things (so called "objective" entities).

These "differences" are artificial. This how empathy is defined in "Psychology 'An Introduction (Ninth Edition) by Charles G. Morris, Prentice Hall, 1996":

"Closely related to the ability to read other people's emotions is empathy 'the arousal of an emotion in an observer that is a vicarious response to the other person's situation... Empathy depends not only on one's ability to identify someone else's emotions but also on one's capacity to put oneself in the other person's place and to experience an appropriate emotional response. Just as sensitivity to non-verbal cues increases with age, so does empathy: The cognitive and perceptual abilities required for empathy develop only as a child matures... (page 442)

In empathy training, for example, each member of the couple is taught to share inner feelings and to listen to and understand the partner's feelings before responding to them. The empathy technique focuses the couple's attention on feelings and requires that they spend more time listening and less time in rebuttal." (page 576).

Thus empathy does require the communication of feelings AND an agreement on the appropriate outcome of the communicated emotions (=affective agreement). In the absence of such agreement, we are faced with inappropriate affect (laughing at a funeral, for instance).

Moreover, empathy does relate to external objects and is provoked by them. There is no empathy in the absence of an empathee. Granted, intersubjectivity is intuitively applied to the inanimate while empathy is applied to the living (animals, humans, even plants). But this is a difference in human preferences 'not in definition.

Empathy can, thus, be re-defined as a form of intersubjectivity which involves living things as "objects" to which the communicated intersubjective agreement relates. It is wrong to limit empathy to the communication of emotion. It is the intersubjective, concomitant experience of BEING. The empathor empathizes not only with the empathee's emotions but also with his physical state and other parameters of existence (pain, hunger, thirst, suffocation, sexual pleasure etc.).

This leads to the important (and perhaps intractable) psychophysical question.

Intersubjectivity relates to external objects but the subjects communicate and reach an agreement regarding the way THEY have been affected by the objects.

Empathy relates to external objects (the Others) but the subjects communicate and reach an agreement regarding the way THEY would have felt had they BEEN the object.

This is no minor difference, if it, indeed, exists. But does it really exist?

What is it that we feel in empathy? Is it OUR emotions/sensations merely provoked by an external trigger (classic intersubjectivity) or is it a TRANSFER of the object's feelings/sensations to us?

Such a transfer being physically impossible (as far as we know) 'we are forced to adopt the former model. Empathy is the set of reactions 'emotional and cognitive 'to triggering by an external object (the other). It is the equivalent of resonance in the physical sciences. But we have NO WAY to ascertain the "wavelength" of such resonance is identical in both subjects. In other words, we have no way to verify that the feelings or sensation invoked in the two (or more) subjects are one and the same. What I call "sadness" may not be what you call "sadness". Colours have unique, uniform, independently measurable properties (like energy). Still, no one can prove that what I see as "red" is what another calls "red" (as is the case with Daltonists). If this is true where "objective", measurable, phenomena are concerned 'it is infinitely true in the case of emotions or feelings.

We are, therefore, forced to refine our definition:

Empathy is a form of intersubjectivity which involves living things as "objects" to which the communicated intersubjective agreement relates. It is the intersubjective, concomitant experience of BEING. The empathor empathizes not only with the empathee's emotions but also with his physical state and other parameters of existence (pain, hunger, thirst, suffocation, sexual pleasure etc.).


The meaning attributed to the words used by the parties to the intersubjective agreement known as empathy is totally dependent upon each party. The same words are used, the same denotates 'but it cannot be proven that the same connotates, the same experiences, emotions and sensations are being discussed or communicated.

Language (and, by extension, art and culture) serve to introduce us to other points of view ("what is it like to be someone else" to paraphrase Thomas Nagle). By providing a bridge between the subjective (inner experience) and the objective (words, images, sounds) -language facilitates social exchange and interaction. It is a dictionary which translates one's subjective private language to the coin of the public medium. Knowledge and language are, thus, the ultimate social glue, though both are based on approximations and guesses (see George Steiner's "After Babel").

But, whereas the intersubjective agreement regarding measurements and observations concerning external objects IS verifiable or falsifiable using INDEPENDENT tools (e.g., lab experiments) 'the intersubjective agreement which concerns itself with the emotions, sensations and experiences of subjects as communicated by them IS NOT verifiable or falsifiable using INDEPENDENT tools. The interpretation of this second kind of agreement is dependent upon introspection and an assumption that identical words used by different subjects still possess identical meaning. This assumption is not falsifiable (or verifiable). It is neither true nor false. It is a probabilistic statement with no probabilities attached. It is, in short, a meaningless statement. As a result, empathy itself is meaningless.

In human-speak, if you say that you are said and I empathize with you it means that we have an agreement. I regard you as my object. You communicate to me a property of yours ("sadness"). This triggers in me a recollection of "what is sadness" or "what is to be sad". I say that I know what you mean, I have been sad before, I know what it is like to be sad. I empathize with you. We agree about being sad. We have an intersubjective agreement.

Alas, such an agreement is meaningless. We cannot (yet) measure sadness, quantify it, crystallize it, access it in any way from the outside. We are totally and absolutely reliant on your introspection and my introspection. There is no way anyone can prove that my "sadness" is even remotely similar to your sadness. I may be feeling or experiencing something that you might find hilarious and not sad at all. Still, I call it "sadness" and I empathize with you.

This would not have been that grave if empathy hadn't been the cornerstone of morality.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1999 Edition:

"Empathy and other forms of social awareness are important in the development of a moral sense. Morality embraces a person's beliefs about the appropriateness or goodness of what he does, thinks, or feels... Childhood is... the time at which moral standards begin to develop in a process that often extends well into adulthood. The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg hypothesized that people's development of moral standards passes through stages that can be grouped into three moral levels...

At the third level, that of postconventional moral reasoning, the adult bases his moral standards on principles that he himself has evaluated and that he accepts as inherently valid, regardless of society's opinion. He is aware of the arbitrary, subjective nature of social standards and rules, which he regards as relative rather than absolute in authority.

Thus the bases for justifying moral standards pass from avoidance of punishment to avoidance of adult disapproval and rejection to avoidance of internal guilt and self-recrimination. The person's moral reasoning also moves toward increasingly greater social scope (i.e., including more people and institutions) and greater abstraction (i.e., from reasoning about physical events such as pain or pleasure to reasoning about values, rights, and implicit contracts)."

But, if moral reasoning is based on introspection and empathy 'it is, indeed, dangerously relative and not objective in any known sense of the word. Empathy is a unique agreement on the emotional and experiential content of two or more introspective processes in two or more subjective. Such an agreement can never have any meaning, even as far as the parties to it are concerned. They can never be sure that they are discussing the same emotions or experiences. There is no way to compare, measure, observe, falsify or verify (prove) that the "same" emotion is experienced identically by the parties to the empathy agreement. Empathy is meaningless and introspection involves a private language despite what Wittgenstein had to say. Morality is thus reduced to a set of meaningless private languages.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica:

"... Others have argued that because even rather young children are capable of showing empathy with the pain of others, the inhibition of aggressive behaviour arises from this moral affect rather than from the mere anticipation of punishment. Some scientists have found that children differ in their individual capacity for empathy, and, therefore, some children are more sensitive to moral prohibitions than others.

Young children's growing awareness of their own emotional states, characteristics, and abilities leads to empathy--i.e., the ability to appreciate the feelings and perspectives of others. Empathy and other forms of social awareness are in turn important in the development of a moral sense... Another important aspect of children's emotional development is the formation of their self-concept, or identity--i.e., their sense of who they are and what their relation to other people is.

According to Lipps's concept of empathy, a person appreciates another person's reaction by a projection of the self into the other. In his 'sthetik, 2 vol. (1903-06; 'Aesthetics'), he made all appreciation of art dependent upon a similar self-projection into the object."

This may well be the key. Empathy has little to do with the other person (the empathee). It is simply the result of conditioning and socialization. In other words, when we hurt someone 'we don't experience his pain. We experience OUR pain. Hurting somebody 'hurts US. The reaction of pain is provoked in US by OUR own actions. We have been taught a learned response of feeling pain when we inflict it upon another. But we have also been taught to feel responsible for our fellow beings (guilt). So, we experience pain whenever another person claims to experience it as well. We feel guilty.

In sum:

To use the example of pain, we experience it in tandem with another person because we feel guilty or somehow responsible for his condition. A learned reaction is activated and we experience (our kind of) pain as well. We communicate it to the other person and an agreement of empathy is struck between us.

We attribute feelings, sensations and experiences to the object of our actions. It is the psychological defence mechanism of projection. Unable to conceive of inflicting pain upon ourselves 'we displace the source. It is the other's pain that we are feeling, we keep telling ourselves, not our own.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica:

"Perhaps the most important aspect of children's emotional development is a growing awareness of their own emotional states and the ability to discern and interpret the emotions of others. The last half of the second year is a time when children start becoming aware of their own emotional states, characteristics, abilities, and potential for action; this phenomenon is called self-awareness... (coupled with strong narcissistic behaviours and traits 'SV)...

This growing awareness of and ability to recall one's own emotional states leads to empathy, or the ability to appreciate the feelings and perceptions of others. Young children's dawning awareness of their own potential for action inspires them to try to direct (or otherwise affect) the behaviour of others...

...With age, children acquire the ability to understand the perspective, or point of view, of other people, a development that is closely linked with the empathic sharing of others' emotions...

One major factor underlying these changes is the child's increasing cognitive sophistication. For example, in order to feel the emotion of guilt, a child must appreciate the fact that he could have inhibited a particular action of his that violated a moral standard. The awareness that one can impose a restraint on one's own behaviour requires a certain level of cognitive maturation, and, therefore, the emotion of guilt cannot appear until that competence is attained."

That empathy is a REACTION to external stimuli that is fully contained within the empathor and then projected onto the empathee 'is clearly demonstrated by "inborn empathy". It is the ability to exhibit empathy and altruistic behaviour in response to facial expressions. Newborns react this way to their mother's facial expression of sadness or distress.

This serves to prove that empathy has very little to do with the feelings, experiences or sensations of the other (the empathee). Surely, the infant has no idea what it is like to feel sad and definitely not what it is like for his mother to feel sad. In this case, it is a complex reflexive reaction. Later on, empathy is still rather reflexive, the result of conditioning.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica quotes fascinating research which dramatically proves the object-independent nature of empathy. Empathy is an internal reaction, an internal process, triggered by external cue provided by animate objects. It is communicated to the empathee-other by the empathor but the communication and the resulting agreement ("I know how you feel therefore we agree on how you feel") is rendered meaningless by the absence of a monovalent, unambiguous dictionary.

"An extensive series of studies indicated that positive emotion feelings enhance empathy and altruism. It was shown by the American psychologist Alice M. Isen that relatively small favours or bits of good luck (like finding money in a coin telephone or getting an unexpected gift) induced positive emotion in people and that such emotion regularly increased the subjects' inclination to sympathize or provide help.

Several studies have demonstrated that positive emotion facilitates creative problem solving. One of these studies showed that positive emotion enabled subjects to name more uses for common objects. Another showed that positive emotion enhanced creative problem solving by enabling subjects to see relations among objects (and other people 'SV) that would otherwise go unnoticed. A number of studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of positive emotion on thinking, memory, and action in pre-school and older children."

If empathy increases with positive emotion (a result of good luck, for instance) 'then it has little to do with its objects and a lot to do with the person in whom it is provoked.

ADDENDUM 'Interview granted to the National Post, Toronto, Canada, July 2003

Q. How important is empathy to proper psychological functioning?

A. Empathy is more important socially than it is psychologically. The absence of empathy 'for instance in the Narcissistic and Antisocial personality disorders 'predisposes people to exploit and abuse others. Empathy is the bedrock of our sense of morality. Arguably, aggressive behavior is as inhibited by empathy at least as much as it is by anticipated punishment.

But the existence of empathy in a person is also a sign of self-awareness, a healthy identity, a well-regulated sense of self-worth, and self-love (in the positive sense). Its absence denotes emotional and cognitive immaturity, an inability to love, to truly relate to others, to respect their boundaries and accept their needs, feelings, hopes, fears, choices, and preferences as autonomous entities.

Q. How is empathy developed?

A. It may be innate. Even toddlers seem to empathize with the pain 'or happiness 'of others (such as their caregivers). Empathy increases as the child forms a self-concept (identity). The more aware the infant is of his or her emotional states, the more he explores his limitations and capabilities 'the more prone he is to projecting this new found knowledge unto others. By attributing to people around him his new gained insights about himself, the child develop a moral sense and inhibits his anti-social impulses. The development of empathy is, therefore, a part of the process of socialization.

But, as the American psychologist Carl Rogers taught us, empathy is also learned and inculcated. We are coached to feel guilt and pain when we inflict suffering on another person. Empathy is an attempt to avoid our own self-imposed agony by projecting it onto another.

Q. Is there an increasing dearth of empathy in society today? Why do you think so?

A. The social institutions that reified, propagated and administered empathy have imploded. The nuclear family, the closely-knit extended clan, the village, the neighborhood, the Church- have all unraveled. Society is atomized and anomic. The resulting alienation fostered a wave of antisocial behavior, both criminal and "legitimate". The survival value of empathy is on the decline. It is far wiser to be cunning, to cut corners, to deceive, and to abuse 'than to be empathic. Empathy has largely dropped from the contemporary curriculum of socialization.

In a desperate attempt to cope with these inexorable processes, behaviors predicated on a lack of empathy have been pathologized and "medicalized". The sad truth is that narcissistic or antisocial conduct is both normative and rational. No amount of "diagnosis", "treatment", and medication can hide or reverse this fact. Ours is a cultural malaise which permeates every single cell and strand of the social fabric.

Q. Is there any empirical evidence we can point to of a decline in empathy?

Empathy cannot be measured directly 'but only through proxies such as criminality, terrorism, charity, violence, antisocial behavior, related mental health disorders, or abuse.

Moreover, it is extremely difficult to separate the effects of deterrence from the effects of empathy.

If I don't batter my wife, torture animals, or steal 'is it because I am empathetic or because I don't want to go to jail?

Rising litigiousness, zero tolerance, and skyrocketing rates of incarceration 'as well as the ageing of the population 'have sliced intimate partner violence and other forms of crime across the United States in the last decade. But this benevolent decline had nothing to do with increasing empathy.

The statistics are open to interpretation but it would be safe to say that the last century has been the most violent and least empathetic in human history. Wars and terrorism are on the rise, charity giving on the wane (measured as percentage of national wealth), welfare policies are being abolished, Darwininan models of capitalism are spreading. In the last two decades, mental health disorders were added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association whose hallmark is the lack of empathy. The violence is reflected in our popular culture: movies, video games, and the media.

Empathy 'supposedly a spontaneous reaction to the plight of our fellow humans 'is now channeled through self-interested and bloated non-government organizations or multilateral outfits. The vibrant world of private empathy has been replaced by faceless state largesse. Pity, mercy, the elation of giving are tax-deductible. It is a sorry sight.

About the Author

Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love 'Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain 'How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb, a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent, and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory Bellaonline, and Suite101.

Until recently, he served as the Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.


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