Empathy. As defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary, it is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. More specifically, it can be regarded as a measure of one’s ability to sympathize with others, to care about and see what they’re going through, and to feel strongly enough to try and help.
Empathy is something many of us strive to achieve; after all, an empathetic world implies a world where everyone cares for each other, and this is a part of a utopian society. What’s interesting to consider, however, are the limits of empathy.
I enjoy reading random articles, I suppose, and I was intrigued when I came across this TED article on empathy. I found the discussion of its limitations, something I had never personally thought about, to be intriguing, and I wanted to share this here.
So, I suppose my article will critically look at the concept of empathy- exploring the limitations, discerning the implications of universal empathy, and finally deciding to what extent empathy should be common in society. Just looking at that last statement, it’s easy to imagine a general reaction of ‘duh, society has to be empathetic, if we want a society of kind people who can get along peacefully.’ While I agree, I want to explore every aspect of empathy in detail: all the realities, and all the implications. There will be some tough questions, but the reality is, we all have to be aware of how exactly we are acting if we want to successfully achieve a positive, caring society. Thus, it makes sense to explore the limitations of empathy, and to also suggest ways we can overcome these limitations.
Situations in which Empathy is Limiting/Limited
Empathy is narrow, and we can only focus on a few people at a time. Thus, we inevitably neglect some people while we prioritize those to whom we feel the most empathetic, and who we thus help.
An example of a situation in which this is an issue:
Everyone faces different struggles in their day-to-day lives, and it just so happens that all of your closest friends are going through difficult times. Their problems are totally unique, but you can relate to all of them and if you focus on one person, you could help them overcome their struggle. But the thing is, in doing so, you will be neglecting the others, and even though your friends will not judge you for it, you will be disappointed in yourself for not having been able to help everyone you felt for. You feel empathetic towards many- but in the end, you have to choose where to focus your efforts to help others, thus your empathy towards those you don’t help is, as you believe, useless.
We spend too much time panicking about not being able to help everyone we feel empathetic towards, and as a result of feeling useless in the face of the overwhelming number of problems that exist, we feel anything we do is useless and maintain a justification in doing nothing. We may feel empathy, but its overwhelming nature prevents us taking any action to help others.
Let’s look at the same example as before. Last time, you made the choice to help one person- but what if you can’t bring yourself to make that choice? What if you feel this idea of ranking people’s struggles is something you should not be allowed to do, and rather than take any action to help anyone, you remain passive and allow everyone else to continue struggling? Well that’s no good- not only are you doing nothing to help anyone else, but you also feel useless and more miserable yourself. Too much empathy for too many who you cannot realistically help makes it possible for some to succumb to despair and become even more limited in their ability to help others.
(this one’ll have quite the exploration 😛 )
When it comes to empathy, we can only feel so strongly and distinguish so clearly between a few cases we feel empathetic towards. For example, high death tolls after disasters are horrible- but it is difficult to feel worse about 6000 deaths than 5000. Deaths are an example of something we feel sympathetic towards, not empathetic, but similar examples exist in the world of empathy, when we feel bad for many people whose experiences we can relate with. Even so, knowing there are 1000 as opposed to 2000 who went through similar struggles as you really does not make a huge difference in our sense of empathy.
But then, is this really an issue? The reality of the situation is, huge numbers and statistics about others who endure struggles mean almost nothing to us, and though we may feel a faint sympathy or empathy for these troubles we hear about and possibly relate to on the news, for example, there is only so much we can actually feel without knowing the people involved. We feel sad that others have to go through such difficulty, but we prioritize empathy towards those we have emotional connections to, those people that we personally know and care about, and who we can more realistically help. Thus, for the most part, it’s simply a matter of faint empathy for those we see far away and don’t know much about, as opposed to the stronger empathy we feel for those we see in our own lives, and who we can actively do more to help.
Of course, the issue of distinguishing different types of empathy for those we see in our lives is another thing to consider within the study of different levels of empathy for different cases. Though news stories may not capture as much of our empathy, we do care about many cases we see with people in our lives, and to decide which of these cases is more important than another can be difficult- especially when we see several situations in which people we love are going through difficult times. This comes back to the first issue: choosing who to help when faced with several who struggle. But this time, I want to focus on the idea that though many people may be enduring hardships, who we choose to support may not necessarily be the person struggling the most.
It’s difficult to decide who is going through the most difficulty- how does one rank other’s struggles? How do I decide a person’s situation is worse than another’s? Because of circumstances that got them there? What they’ve lost? Their capacity to deal with their problems? The support they have? This is not easily decided, and rather than go through the process to evaluate other’s struggles, people typically don’t make their decisions to help others based on level of difficulties endured; rather, people will choose to help those they care more about, those for whom they will have greater empathy regardless of how the difficulties in their lives compare to that of others. It doesn’t matter if their struggles are greater or less than others- people will help those they love, because their love for them creates a stronger sense of empathy than for others they don’t know as well. So in the end, it’s not a matter of empathy causing you to help others- it’s a matter of how much you care about someone, and how strongly you feel the need to support them with anything that comes up in their lives.
Another Case Study
Looking at matters through a more negative lens, there’s also the idea that the issue is our insensitivity. There are societal pressures in place that cause everyone in a community to feel obliged to be empathetic or sympathetic towards some situations. For example, if a little girl is lost in a community, everyone will feel the need to express their sorrow over the matter and to even play a small role in helping find her. This isn’t a bad thing at all- the problem arises when people take situations like this, and use them to justify their notion that they are kind beings, or kind enough. Another example would be the idea of vegetarianism to spare animals a brutal slaughter. There has been much publicity about cruel treatment of animals in more recent times, and as a result, many feel obliged to care about these matters. For this reason, there is a general sympathy for this cause, and many feel empathetic towards those who turn to vegetarianism. The thing is, when people feel they are correct in this action based on empathy, they begin to justify other things they do in their lives as well. These same people can easily become dictators who unnecessarily involve their countries in wars and cause much death… and yet, because they feel empathetic and act on their empathy towards one cause (vegetarianism), feel they are morally correct and do not hesitate to carry out such brutal slaughter of humans. Hitler was such an example. His vegetarianism was out of disgust for the idea of killing animals, yet he felt nothing in killing humans; indeed, he often saw it as necessary. Thus, we have an example of a character who takes empathy and action based on empathy towards one cause as justification for moral righteousness, and carries this sense of correctness forward in the other terrible things they do.
In the end, the fact is that even if we can empathize with many, we cannot take action to help every single person out there. Our own sense of empathy towards everyone can even be a distraction that prevents us doing what we can to help a few people, and it is interesting that we have to overcome the general empathy we feel for everyone in order to successfully help a few people. Being aware of this reality is definitely valuable, and since empathy alone will lead to no action, it is clear that in order to get anything done to help people we feel empathetic towards, we have to take action. Nor can we expect that our actions will impact everyone we care about- there is only so much one person can do, and to recognize our limitations and not unrealistically expect that we can save everyone allows us to not be discouraged, but to continue with our own small efforts to help a few people. In short, if we all embrace our limited ability to help yet try to play our part in helping a few of the many people we are empathetic towards, our efforts will accumulate and become that much more significant.
This exploration was inspired by the TED article ‘Is Empathy Overrated?,’ which you should definitely give a read!