Feeling what others feel

18 Dec 2023

In a world battered by crises, what does empathy really mean? An interview with philosopher Monika Betzler on empathy and morality.

Prof. Dr. Monika Betzler

Empathy draws us closer to other people and how they experience the world, says Professor Monika Betzler | © LMU

Professor Betzler, crises, wars and natural disasters dominate the headlines. It is hard finding enough empathy to go round. How do you see this from a philosopher’s perspective?

Monika Betzler: It is simply not possible to feel empathy on an emotional level with victims of all the crises in the world – with refugees from war, hostages, the victims of natural disasters and miners caught in accidents. This deeper form of empathy absorbs so many cognitive and emotional resources that it takes control of your attention, overstretches it and exhausts it. People talk about the ‘depletion effect’, which is avoided by news items and appeals for donations that only present isolated victims. It is much easier to feel empathy with specific individuals.

Morally speaking, however, that is a problem, because it can distract us from topics that are at least as important. For journalists, an ethical dilemma ensues: Is it necessary to show images of concrete individual cases that are so personal that viewers or readers will develop a strong sense of empathy? On the other hand, empathizing with the fate of individuals can impair your ability to consider moral factors from an unbiased angle.

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Isn’t morality rooted in empathy?

Scottish Enlightenment thinkers such as philosopher Adam Smith already believed that a distinct kind of empathy served as the basis for morality, and modern philosophy likewise sees a close connection. Empathy can indeed naturally lead to ‘prosocial behavior’, as the psychologists call it. But I am critical of this view: If I feel profound empathy for the fears of an adversary, I lose sight of whether those fears are even appropriate and, as such, deserving of my empathy. At the same time, it prevents me from thinking about whether others are more deserving of my attention. So, empathy can not only amplify groundless feelings but also quickly lead to partiality.

As a philosopher, what exactly do you understand by empathy?

Firstly, analytical philosophy sees empathy as a complex mental state that becomes ‘interwoven’ with that of another person. One form of it – cognitive empathy – merely requires sufficient imaginative capabilities to ‘put yourself in the other person’s shoes’, as the saying goes. In the case of the stronger form – affective or emotional empathy – you become so intensively involved in the other person’s emotions that you do indeed seem to ‘feel what they feel’.

For example, if the person feels fear – fear of a dangerous animal, a burglar or a wartime situation – and I focus my full attention on what they are currently experiencing and share in their feelings, then I experience something like a ‘quasi-fear’. Yet I remain aware that this feeling essentially relates to the other person and not to myself – unlike in less complex cases of ‘infectious emotion’, such as when one baby starts crying and all the others join in. That said, the state of complete affective empathy is so complex that, in relation to a group, it can be overtaxing and is virtually impossible.

How did philosophy arrive at the current definition of empathy?

It initially developed in the late 19th century, albeit in relation to esthetic works, i.e. paintings and literature. The German concept of literally ‘feeling your way into’ something was translated into English as empathy, which in turn was then Germanized as ‘Empathie’. Another historical precursor dates back to the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century. Back then, the focus was more on the term ‘sympathy’, which economist and philosopher Adam Smith defined as a ‘fellow feeling’ that allows you to respond to the suffering or joy of others and, to some extent, to feel what they feel.

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With whom do we empathize?

It is possible to empathize with humans – any sentient beings, essentially – and perhaps also with animals. In contrast, you can’t empathize with a stone. Studies show that we empathize more with children than with old people, with good-looking people rather than ugly people, and with people who resemble ourselves rather than those who look different. That is obviously questionable from a moral point of view. Other important factors are shared experiences – including basic human experiences such as feeling a fear of death. But there are limits to this. Try as I might, I personally cannot fully grasp the specific situation of a Ukrainian soldier lying in the trenches. In principle, empathy is an ‘attitude between two individuals’ that focuses on the complexity of another person’s mental existence.

Do digital media make it even harder to steer empathy in a sensible moral direction?

Definitely – because of the flood of news feeds, but also because the Internet is often a polarized world where algorithms link us up with precisely those people who are already on the same wavelength as we are. As a result, we forget how to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who lives in a different political bubble, say. Moreover, because too much human contact takes place via social media, we run the risk of no longer being able to ‘read’ a real, live person in front of us, of being unable to share in that person’s real experiences. It is hard to empathize if you never actually meet people.

So, are there philosophical or moral reasons why we should suppress feelings of empathy for others whom we know only in the virtual realm or as groups?

We should at least still be able to take a step back in order to ponder what the moral demands of the situation really are. Maybe we would do more justice to victims with more abstract considerations – that they are humans with dignity, rights and demands, for example. That may enable us to help them more than a profound sense of feeling their experiences would do.

Empathy and politics

Is empathy the wrong tool to guide behavior, then – and to guide how we judge geopolitical events?

Yes, in my opinion, it is. Talking about the state of the world, Barack Obama once said: “We have an empathy deficit.” I find that too vague and excessively idealized. Why? Because it is questionable whether empathy – an attitude that focuses specifically on individual people – is indeed the right attitude in the political context. And if it is focused on a generalized group, it can be so overtaxing that it might actually hinder sensible moral behavior. Rather than sharing emotions, I think that what we need here is compassion in a wider sense: understanding and communication.

But can empathy still be helpful faced with the current state of the world?

In the context of interpersonal relationships with your partner, family members, friends and colleagues, it certainly can. The intrinsic value of empathy here is intimacy. It draws us closer to other people and how they experience the world. It fosters connection, recognition, understanding and bonding. It is a glue that cements social ties, which in turn are a basic human need, something that gives us strength. Through the empathy shown by their parents, children learn to appreciate their perspective; and that is what enables them to acquire an identity, because humans effectively become themselves as they are mirrored in the eyes of others. Because, as humans, we need to feel seen and understood.

Monika Betzler

Professor of Philosophy at LMU Munich | © Stephan Höck/LMU

Professor Monika Betzler has held the Chair of Practical Philosophy and Ethics at LMU since 2014. She engages in basic research in the fields of moral theory, meta-ethics, moral psychology and applied ethics. She also concerns herself with topics such as theories of wellbeing.

One focus of her work is on relational aspects, such as analyzing skills like empathy, forgiveness, admiration and attentiveness in relationships.

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