Date of publication: 2017-08-30 11:40
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Or consider long-distance charity. It is conceivable, I suppose, that someone who hears about the plight of starving children might actually go through the empathetic exercise of imagining what it is like to starve to death. But this empathetic distress surely isn&rsquo t necessary for charitable giving. A compassionate person might value others&rsquo lives in the abstract, and, recognizing the misery caused by starvation, be motivated to act accordingly.
Example: In Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, Thoreau states that his retreat to the woods around Walden Pond was motivated by his desire to live deliberately and to face only the essential facts of life.
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This brings us to the targets of empathy. As I write this, an older relative of mine who has cancer is going back and forth to hospitals and rehabilitation centers. I&rsquo ve watched him interact with doctors and learned what he thinks of them. He values doctors who take the time to listen to him and develop an understanding of his situation he benefits from this sort of cognitive empathy. But emotional empathy is more complicated. He gets the most from doctors who don&rsquo t feel as he does, who are calm when he is anxious, confident when he is uncertain. And he particularly appreciates certain virtues that have little directly to do with empathy, virtues such as competence, honesty, professionalism, and respect.
This reaction surprised me at first, but I&rsquo ve come to realize that taking a position against empathy is like announcing that you hate kittens a statement so outlandish it can only be a joke. And so I&rsquo ve learned to clarify, to explain that I am not against morality, compassion, kindness, love, being a good neighbor, doing the right thing, and making the world a better place. My claim is actually the opposite: if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide.
Buddhist texts are even more skeptical about anger than they are about empathy. They see it as destructive of the individual and the world at large. This is a valid concern. But if I could determine the emotional life of my child, I wouldn&rsquo t leave out the capacity for anger. The emotional force of anger can protect us and those we are close to from exploitation and predation. Someone who could never get angry would be the perfect victim. Anger can also be a prod to moral behavior more generally many great moral heroes Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance have been individuals who let themselves get angry at situations that others were indifferent to.
Some degree of emotional empathy is bred in the bone. The sight and sound of another&rsquo s suffering is unpleasant for babies and, as soon as they are mobile enough, they try to help, patting and soothing others in distress. This is not uniquely human: the primatologist Frans de Waal notes that chimps will often put their arms around the victim of an attack and pat her or groom her.
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