The Dangers of Empathy

Today I attended a talk on “Generative Empathies,” part of the Tisch Talks in the Humanities hosted by Tisch College.

The talk focused on exploring the question, “What does empathy produce?”

While you might imagine possible answers to that question – empathy produces shared understanding, it acknowledges another’s experience, it expresses our shared humanity – I was most taken with some of the concerns raised about empathy.

That is to ask, is empathy always “good”?

What if you are empathetic towards someone or something that is justifiably “bad”? What if you choose the wrong side of an issue because your empathy is misguided?

Perhaps more fundamentally – does feeling empathy relieve you of further ethical work? Does empathy soften a critical eye?

I am reminded, for example, of a recent story in Slate about the research efforts of a group of women incarcerated in the Indiana Women’s Prison to look at that institution’s history.

The traditional story of the prison’s 1873 founding went something like this: after shocking allegations of sexual abuse in a unisex prison, two angelic women fought for the creation of the first all-female prison in the country to protect their incarcerated sisters.

In this simple retelling, the two well-to-do women felt empathy towards wayward women, establishing a women’s prison to rectify their tragedy.

Of course, the story is much more complicated than that.

And empathy is more complicated than that.

There is evidence that the two women each had moral failings of their own. That it was their virtue of wealth more than anything that kept them on the right side of the law. By modern standards their crimes were worse than some of the inmates they oversaw.

There are indications that terrible things happened in their prison. That at least one of the women knew about and even instigated abuse.

Yet they are remembered as angels who saw fit to save the fallen women of their day.

Just who should one feel empathy for in this story?

And importantly, was it appropriate for the prison’s founder’s to claim empathy towards the inmates?

Their empathy was a resource of privilege. Left unjudged for their own crimes, it was easy for them to find empathy for those “less fortunate.”

And perhaps what’s most remarkable about this story that I’m left with little doubt that those two women thought they were doing the right thing. Regardless of their own failings, they thought they were doing what was best for incarcerated women.

Enshrined in empathy, they thought they were the angelic saviors history remembers them to be.

And that is, perhaps, one of the rockiest shoals of empathy – that it might be treated as a free pass, an escape hatch, an all-encompassing rebuttal to any challenge:

I can do no wrong, because I truly care.

Perhaps empathy can be used as such a shield, but it shouldn’t be.

Empathy does not relieve the need for a critical eye, does not lessen the burden to constantly question what is right and what is wrong, does not change your moral obligations.

It simply helps you see more…by demonstrating that you understand nothing.

As one speaker put today, quoting Leslie Jamison in the Empathy Exams, “Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.”

All we can ever really understand, all we can ever really know, is our own experience. Empathy helps us feel around the edges of what we know, comparing our own experiences to others, touching the similarity and feeling for the differences.

Assuming nothing, knowing nothing. Just groping for common ground across a dark chasm of difference.


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