Consumer Research Reports, Health & Medicine

Do We Overestimate the Virtues of Empathy?

Empathy is in fashion, advocated by everyone and everywhere as the ferment of social ties, it is what would ensure mutual aid and “good living together”. Having become a suitcase concept, often synonymous with morality, empathy is presented as a necessary and sufficient condition for altruism and social harmony. But is empathy necessarily a pledge of morality?

What is empathy?

The omnipresent concept for ten years, both in university scientific research and in the professional world of health, education and work, empathy is presented as an emotional capacity allowing to fight against certain ills of society such as individualism, withdrawal, communitarianism and violence.

Supposed to develop altruism, mutual aid, respect for others and compassion, it would even contribute to the well-being and the reduction of inequalities by promoting social inclusion. Faced with this growing interest, many studies have looked at the development of empathy in children, often with the production of effective intervention programs such as those focused on psychosocial skills.

However, empathy, in its current sense, does not seem to keep all of its promises in terms of its social and moral benefits. Indeed, its link to morality is not direct, but rather complex and equivocal.

The term “empathy” comes from the German philosopher Robert Vischer who, in 1873, designated by Einfühlung (felt from the inside) aesthetic empathy as a mode of the emotional relationship between an individual and a work of art.

By extension, being empathic is understanding and experiencing the emotion that the other person feels in a given situation. Empathy, therefore, seems to be an essential skill for social interaction, cooperation and altruism. Recent research shows that it is associated with certain biological and even genetic correlates but also linked to our life experiences and our learning in an emotional and educational context, mainly during early childhood. Empathy is both an awareness of the internal states of others (thoughts, feelings, intentions), as well as an emotional response to others (feelings and emotional expressiveness). Also, empathy often comes in two types: cognitive empathy and emotional/affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand the thoughts and intentions of others, while emotional empathy is the ability to feel the emotional states of others.

Empathy: selfless or self-centered?

The most easily activated emotional empathy is that experienced when a person is suffering, in danger of being the victim of an unjust act. Thus, the sharing of this perceived and felt suffering produces empathetic distress which could lead the individual to bring help to a person who is suffering.

For example, when faced with an anxious, depressed person, our emotional expressiveness tends to accompany the suffering person and can take a compassionate side. Our posture, our attitudes, our gaze, even the prosody of our voice, adjust to the person in front of us.

Does this expressive synchronization of emotions respond to the understanding of the sufferer’s emotions? Does it promote altruism? Does it provide support? Not necessarily … Because if empathy is supposed to allow human beings to decentralize themselves in order to welcome others, numerous works show that this empathetic emotional sharing is not necessarily turned towards the other.

Indeed, according to Decety), several parameters must be taken into account, notably emotional contagion and perspective-taking. The emotional contagion is an adaptive response allowing the human being to share the suffering of the other, but this one can remain superficial and egocentric. Indeed, an individual can experience the same emotional state as another, while maintaining a certain distance between himself and others. This is what we observe very early in children; where the crying of an infant will very quickly induce in other infants, witnesses of the scene, a triggering of crying.

This emotional contagion can take the form of an egocentric empathy in which the effects of others are only felt through analysis and an interpretation that is ultimately very personal. The mental states of others are therefore not taken into account. Also, so that this emotional pseudo-understanding of others is not only a projection of one’s own emotivity and that it really includes the other as an otherness, it is essential to take into consideration the concept of taking perspective, which refers to the concept of mental flexibility.

The latter is declined in three types: a type known as centered on oneself, a type is known as centered on others and a third type known as combined. In the first “self-centered” type, we imagine what we feel if we were in the place of the person in the same situation. Here, our personal story triggers empathy. We respond to the perceived distress signal as if we were ourselves in distress, which is ultimately very egocentric.

In the second type “centered on others”, the verbal and intraverbal emotional signals expressed by the person stimulate our empathetic feeling towards them, by taking into account the cognitive aspect (reasons, causes of distress ), without referring to the person’s feelings (cf. emotional empathy).

In the third type, “combined centering”, what we feel towards the person, via what we observe, also activates our feeling towards ourselves. The latter type, involving more complex emotional and cognitive processes, is the most effective in terms of an empathic response directed towards the well-being of others.

If the term empathy has its origin in German aesthetic philosophy, the concept, meanwhile, has an older origin in the philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment and, more particularly in the philosophical system of Adam Smith based on the concept of sympathy. A return to the concept of sympathy developed by the one who is often presented, wrongly, as the founding father of an individualist and selfish liberalism allows us to highlight the richness of this concept and the limits of empathy, in particular in terms of moral feelings.

Back to sympathy

The question of morality is at the heart of Smith’s philosophy, which is part of the sentimentalist tradition of moral feelings and which seeks to demonstrate, in reaction against the “selfish” and “rationalist” theories, a kind of immediacy of judgment. moral based neither on reason nor on a calculation of interest, but on feelings). Smith’s work is a bit the culmination of this approach while standing out: the moral sense is not innate, it is based on sympathy defined as a mechanism or a system for communicating the passions and feelings of an individual to another. But, in Smith, this concept is much richer than simple empathy or emotional contagion (already present in the other great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume), since it combines cognitive and emotional dimensions, and is based on a feeling agreement.

Because of its instantaneous nature, sympathy, according to Smith, is always selfless and broader than compassion and only emotional empathy. It requires an agreement of feeling which rests above all on our capacity of imagination and identification. By putting ourselves in the place of the other, we understand what their emotions are, and sympathize with their feeling because it seems adequate and proportional to the situation or the affection which is causing it. “Approving the passions of others as appropriate to their objects is the same as observing that we fully sympathize with them”.

Sympathizing with the feeling of the other therefore implies being in agreement with this feeling (in nature and intensity), approving it, then feeling a kind of “sympathetic copy” which resembles the original feeling, but lower intensity. Sympathy therefore necessarily implies the other, as well as taking a perspective (Smith speaks of “imaginary change of situation”), which we could compare to combined centration, which ultimately rests as much an observation of the situation only on the feeling of others. Smith insists on the difference between “a sympathy based on self-love” (I imagine what “I” might feel in your situation), a non-selfish sympathy which rests entirely on the point of view of the ‘other (through imagination, I put myself in the place of the other as if I were the other, without losing my identity). This difference in point of view is essential to tackle the challenges in terms of morality and social harmony.

To sympathize with the other, one must be in agreement with what he expresses with regard to the situation with which he is confronted. We cannot sympathize with a feeling that we disapprove of. In other words, there has to be some “convenience” between “passion” and the situation of others. The moral sentiment, which we would rather describe today as moral judgment, is therefore intrinsically linked to sympathy: “We judge the suitability or impropriety of the affections of other men, according to their agreement or their dissonance with the ours ”.

The essential impartial spectator

In this theater of Smithian morality, self-judgment is also essential in the sense that it leads us to act in a “proper and meritorious” manner. There is a reflexive sympathy which, in Smith, rests on the philosophical figure of the “impartial spectator”: “abstract and ideal spectator”, a sort of “inner judge” which would exist in each of us and which allows us, through the sympathetic process, to assess the suitability of our own actions and those of others, and thus to make a moral judgment.

Smith conceives of the impartial spectator as a social abstraction that represents the point of view of others on my own actions. The impartial spectator is built according to our social experiences by internalizing the judgment and the gaze of others (some see it as a prefiguration of the Freudian concept of Superego). He thus appears as the arbiter or representative of common values ​​and social norms.

It is he who determines the meaning of convenience and whether the action is sympathetic or not. It is also the one that helps temper self-love and selfishness so that they do not hamper relationships with others and the feeling of approval of others.

The Smithian philosophical system, therefore, rests on a virtuous approach to sympathy as the foundation of society which allows “the moderation and regulation of the passions, essential to a good understanding between men”. The moderation of passions and self-love are indeed necessary conditions for social harmony which, according to Smith, depends above all on the virtue of self-control, essential to the sympathetic mechanism.

In conclusion, the modern vision of empathy is more restrictive than sympathy and less able to advance reflection on morality and social harmony. The difference between these two concepts is often misunderstood and only a return to their philosophical origins can clarify their contours. It would seem that we have lost dimensions – moral and philosophical – in this passage from sympathy to empathy.

The absence of the “impartial spectator” in the current sense of empathy gives it a very egocentric character, insofar as the understanding and the feeling of the other pass only by oneself. But why advocate the virtues of empathy as a remedy for the ills of society when it does not necessarily lead to morality?

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