The virtue of empathy

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.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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5 Responses to The virtue of empathy

  1. peterdwilson says:

    Some organisation, I forget which, had the motto “see – judge – act” implying the need to appraise a situation before rushing in. Empathy appears to be very much a part of this preparatory phase of charity, and essential if the virtue is to be fruitfully practised.

  2. Ion Zone says:

    Empathy is a virtue, but it is one we feel disinclined to listen to.

  3. claret says:

    I have recently been made aware of a man who has become the victim of ‘scam mail’ where he has parted with thousands of pounds in the hope of winning prizes that have been promised but never materialise. His details are passd on to other ‘scammers’ and the man seems unable to free himself of them or detach himself from the letters. Clairvoyants too got into the ‘act’ and at one time as many as 15 were writing regularly to him and he was paying them all for ‘readings’ that promised good luck.
    What surprised and saddened me was the lack of empathy for people in his situation ( and there are many more like him,) from others who simply dissmissed it as ‘being his own fault’ or ‘he must be daft to be so gullible’ etc.
    In other words the lack of empathy for the victim has the effect of turning him, innocent as he is, into the perpetrator.
    There are many examples of similar behaviour.
    How many of us have any empathy for the woman who is duped into giving thousands of pounds to a man she has met via. some internet dating site. ( men victims too.) A man this week was convicted of doing this very thing to many women and is believed to have de-frauded them to a toal of £500.000. Do we not regard it as their own fault for being so gullible?
    These are quite minor examples. Our empathy for victims of famine and floods is to lay the blame at their Governments for being corrupt or for spending money on arms.
    Empathy therefore calls for a radical re-think in attitude. I really must work on my lack of empathy.

  4. st.joseph says:

    We can always ask the other person to pray.With the nurse she could lose her job Or ask for prayers from them.

    One also has to be careful we are not considered as interefering busy-bodies.

    I think education would be a good starting point,depending what the subject is.
    How much are we to be responsible to others outside our own responsibilites.
    Common sense is a wonderful gift-and we can always learn from our mistakes’
    This may not be empathy.

    We can feel the pain of others,but be unable to do much about it!

  5. RMBlaber says:

    I find myself contributing once more with my ‘Asperger Syndrome’ hat on. Those of us on the autism spectrum are not supposed to be too good when it comes to the virtue of empathy.

    In the main, this is because of our poor non-verbal communication skills. Tones of voice, body language and facial expressions mean less to me than they do to the average ‘neuro-typical’ person.

    We are also supposed to lack ‘social imagination’ and what is called a ‘theory of mind’. (Well, some of us lack these things – not all of us do!) A common test of the latter, with respect to children, is to get the child to be tested to hide a toy (a teddy bear, say) when another child is outside the room. The autistic child, having no ‘theory of mind’, and therefore no understanding that other people’s consciousness is quite separate from their own, will not realise that the other child does not know where the toy is hidden, and will be completely nonplussed by its confusion.

    Another problem for us is that we are frequently hyper-sensitive to at least one, if not more, of the five sensual stimuli. In my own case, I have an extremely strong sense of smell, to the extent that I can smell someone’s deodorant, perfume or after-shave from literally yards away, and an acute sensitivity to high-pitched sounds.

    Jean-Paul Sartre argued (in ‘Huis-Clos’) that ‘hell is other people’. For someone like me, that can be literally true. It is all too easy for me to become very misanthropic (and not very charitable or Christian) after prolonged exposure to my fellow H. sapiens. Nevertheless, I recognise a duty of empathy towards them, and not merely a duty, but an actual feeling, also.

    At the basis of empathy is the ability to ‘put oneself in the other person’s shoes’, imaginatively speaking, and ask ‘How would I feel if that had happened to me?’ It is the inability to do this that is the mark of the sociopath. The rest of us, however, all have the ability to a greater or lesser degree, and we have a duty to cultivate it. If only more of us actually did so, we would live in a very much happier, fairer and better society than the one we live in now.

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