Prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – we all remember the cardinal virtues. They come next in the list after the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. But I find myself interested in the lesser virtues, which have the characteristic of “support” virtues. They may rank lower down the scale but, without them, the major virtues are likely to be unattainable.
There are many support virtues which deserve our investigation. On this occasion I choose the virtue of empathy. In order for me to style it as a virtue it must pass the Aquinas test. That is, it must be a habit by which we live righteously, one that makes its possessor good, and his work good likewise.
I start with a loose definition. We all know that sympathy means sharing in another’s feeling. Our friend feels distressed, and so we feel distress with our friend. Empathy is different. It means that we are able to understand and accept how our friend is feeling, but we do not necessarily feel the same. A simple example is the good hospital nurse. She, or he, recognises the distress of a patient and then considers how she can help to relieve it. But if she were to feel the distress herself – along with the distress of all the other patients and relatives, she has seen that day – she simply couldn’t do her work efficiently. So she cannot allow herself to sympathise, but in order to be truly helpful she needs to empathise.
The major virtue which empathy supports is charity. We all know that to love our neighbours as ourselves does not mean treating them in terms of our needs but treating them in terms of their needs. And we have to start by putting ourselves into the emotional and physical shoes of the other person so that we can get closer to seeing the situation from their perspective.
Now this is hard. It’s hard because our natural inclination is to favour our own perspective; it’s a real act of selflessness to try and see the other’s point of view. And all the harder if their point of view is one we cannot personally share. Let’s take an example.
Imagine that we are talking to a teenager who is upset and defiant because s(he) has been forbidden to go to an all night party. We might very much agree with the prohibition. But first we must look at it from the teenager’s perspective. And you might at this point pause and just think about how the prohibition might feel to the teenager. A combination of memory and imagination will help you here.
It is likely that, however strong the feelings you identify, you will continue to agree with the prohibition. But now you can tackle the problem with greater sensitivity and, in some cases at least, your understanding will enable the teenager to sit back and look at the situation in a different light. You will be treating her as you would wish to be treated yourself.
So does empathy pass the Aquinas test? I think it does. It is a habit to cultivate. That is, we may have to work constantly at being ready to understand the perspective of those with whom we disagree. Just like the other virtues, if we don’t practise it the habit will soon disappear. If we do practise it, it will grow stronger and stronger – and come more readily to hand.
And, without doubt, it is a major part of loving our neighbour as ourselves. And so it makes us good and our works likewise. You might like to think of areas in society outside, and within your own circle of family and friends, and identify what the effects of a greater exercise of the virtue of empathy might be.