Sympathy versus Empathy September 9, 2014
I think I have finally figured out the distinction between ‘sympathy’ and ’empathy’, and why we have two words. ‘Sympathy’ is a much older word, and has been in use for centuries; ’empathy’ is a fairly new one, becoming fashionable only in the last half of the 20th century. No one, at least that I know of, speaks of sending an ’empathy card’ to a friend whose parent, wife, or child died; and the Romance languages describe a nice person as ‘simpatico’, not ’empatico’. As a matter of fact, I wonder if ’empatico’ is used in Spanish at all!
But here’s my handle on it. What does “sympathy without empathy” look like? At worst, it’s the ‘toxic charity‘ that Bob Lupton writes about. An example might be a ‘mission trip’ where young American kids dig a water ditch for some African village instead of merely, at best, digging alongside the locals and at least allowing the locals to get to do some work; or sending the village things they don’t particularly want; or dumping so much donated food in an area that the existing farmers go broke. This is the kind of ‘charity’ that makes donors feel good about how much they care, but isn’t particularly helpful. On a lesser level, it applies to gifts that we receive, like the sweater our aunt gives us at Christmas, that may not be something which we often wear but we need to be thankful for anyhow; this thankfulness honors sympathy that lacks empathy, which we need to do.
On the other hand, what would ’empathy without sympathy’ look like? My guess it would look like the demagogue, who really understands people’s problems and difficulties, but uses this knowledge for his own power and agenda. Adolf Hitler, of course, was an extreme example of this; he would have not achieved the success and power if he did not have a real understanding of what the German people’s suffering and distress were really about, but he used this understanding to evil ends. Many politicians, to some degree, learn to practice ’empathy without sympathy’.
So, should we try to inculcate empathy in children? Yes. And sympathy too. But while sympathy is a heart virtue, empathy is both a virtue and a skill; we all lead different lives, and it is simply not possible for us to have ‘walked a mile in the moccasins’ of everyone we ever have to deal with. [See my other post, “Spoiled Rich Kids” and “Ghetto Gangsters” for another angle.] But, without knowing exactly what servers, or for that matter cooks, in a restaurant have to put up with, we can at least sort of be aware that they have to put up with a lot. But because we can’t know exactly, that’s a reason why both manners and morals have to be both about virtues, like sympathy, empathy, and kindness, but also about specific rules like “say thank you” and “don’t raise your voice” and things of that sort. You cannot have a morality or a system of manners based only on rules; it’s basically a skeleton, and skeletons are scary. You also can’t have a morality or a system of manners based only on virtues; it basically resembles a filet, and filets get eaten.