Empathy and Altruism

What is Empathy?


“Empathy” was first used as a technical term in psychology by E. B. Titchener in the 1920s. It was developed from the Greek word “empatheia” meaning “feeling into.” In practice it is commonly used to express a person’s ability to “perceive the subjective experience of another.” <Goleman, 98> A more technical (and rather philosophical) definition for empathy is “using one’s imagination as a tool so as to adopt a different perspective in order to grasp how things appear (or feel)” to someone else. <Matravers, 15>


It has been common to break up empathy into three major categories. The three are interrelated but one can see where it is of value to see them as separate. The first is Cognitive Empathy. This is understanding the perspective of the other. The second is Emotional Empathy. This is feeling the pain of another. The third is Compassionate Empathy. This is a connection to the other in such a way as to be motivated to respond. <Heartmanity>


Rather than saying they are three types of empathy, it may be more correct to say that they are three aspects of it— Head, Heart, and Hands. Ethical response comes from action linked to compassionate empathy.


Generally, we see something as commendable in a person if it is both ethical (morality correct— a tough thing to define in some cases), and based on proper motivation. The Anti-hero may do what is right, but do so for the wrong reasons. An employee may do what is right but because of fear or need of money. We would generally say that someone’s behavior is commendable if both the action and the motivation are commendable. A commendable action motivated by compassion would generally be seen commendable or speaking well of the person.


It is noteworthy that the primary emotion used to describe Jesus in the Gospels is compassion. Commonly, it is expressed that Jesus acts to help people driven to such actions by compassion (or compassionate empathy).


Empathy and its Relationship to Altruism


But what happens if compassion is sullied? What if motivation for acts of kindness is, ultimately, selfish. Ayn Rand, the developer of the philosophical perspective known as Objectivism, has argued that actions that appear altruistic (motivated by unselfish compassion) are in fact driven by self-interest. As such, to say that a person is better because he acts from a motivation of compassion rather than from self-interest is flawed. In fact, one could even argue that the opposite is true. The one who acts openly from self-interest is superior to one who PRETENDS to do so unselfishly due to compassionate empathy. To admit to self-interest is to be honest, without deception.


I have been rather surprised at how many Christians (American Evangelical Christians at least) are quite comfortable with Objectivism. On the face of it, at least, it appears to be wholly unchristian. I suppose one could make the argument that since we are Fallen Creatures, we cannot act unselfishly— only God can. However, Objectivism seems to revel in that fallenness. The Bible certainly commends sacrificial love, mercy, and compassion, as well as seeking as best one can to embrace godly heart, mind, and actions. It is hard to see enlightened self-interest coming anywhere near to embracing such goals.


But is it true? When we say that we act from empathy/compassion, is that a fraud? Is altruism a flawed viewpoint? Philosophically, Objectivism has been challenged, and especially in the area of altruism. I wish I still had the article that was in a book that I lent to someone who never returned it (perhaps the person kept it in an acted of self-interest). The article brought up numerous points challenging the objectivist view of altruism. It had many good points, most of which I had, sadly, forgotten. However, one major point was pretty basic. The objectivist view of altruism is essentially unprovable and unassailable, because it does not lend itself to testing. It has some of the same qualities as some Freudian presuppositions regarding motivation and development. It is nigh impossible to determine true causation for actions.


Suppose Al (short for Altruist) was walking along a road between Jerusalem and Jericho. He sees a man who was attacked and injured by robbers. He feels compassion and takes the man to an inn and cares for him, and pays the innkeeper to continue to provide care. Was he altruistic? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Maybe he did it in hopes of getting praise from other people. Maybe he did it due to fear of shame if some found that he did not provide care. Maybe he hoped to be rewarded financially from the victim at a later date. Maybe he was addicted to the dopamine rush he gets from doing something for someone else. Maybe in a bit of enlightened self-interest he responds based on the belief that caring for the injured would ultimately be a key component for making the world a better and safer place and this would ultimately benefit himself. So is Al an altruist or a self-centered? We don’t know. We have no way of knowing and in fact if Al says “the real reason” he does something, another person can come along and (ala’ Freud) say that that is not the REAL reason or motivation at all. Rand’s opinion is not much more than opinion since it has no firm base except its own statement that it is true.


There is no way to tell if we act compassionately and with self-disinterest or not. Or so we could say in the past. But there have been psychological experiments, described by both Goleman and Matravers, that point to the fact that we often act in ways that seemingly cannot be explained by objectivist beliefs. This is not to say that the evidence is so overwhelming that it is impossible to interpret the results in line with a rejection of altruism, but rather that the experiments provide quite compelling evidence that people can and do act from altruistic, compassionate motivations (at times at least). You are welcome to read the experiments themselves themselves. Malavers especially lists several of these experiments, and one can evaluate them if one wishes.


Again, why would some Christians have problems with this? Not sure, but some Christians focus on a Creation view of man. That is, mankind can best be understood as created in God’s image (Imago Dei). As such, it should be anticipated that humans love, demonstrate empathy, and demonstrate mercy that reflects in some genuine way God our Creator. Some others, however, focus on a Fall view of man. That is, mankind can best be understood as fallen beings in which the image of God is now missing, or so distorted that everything we do is flawed, at least in motivation. But it seems dubious to say that accepting one view means wholly rejecting the other. The truth seems to exist in the tension of these extremes. Likewise, looking at humans as self-serving and as self-sacrificial altruists is not contradictory… but does point out the complexity of people. Any model to narrowly explains human thought, feelings, and motivation should be complex, not reductionistic.


Can Empathy be Misapplied?


But can empathy be misapplied? I think so. I have noticed a lot of lack of sympathy by Christians for people of other groups. Often these groups would fit into a category that Christians would see as sinners (meaning sinning in specific ways that in some manner goes beyond the “normal sinfulness” of the larger culture). In some cases it is a lack of sympathy for people of different beliefs or values. Some Christians even seem to pride themselves in their lack of empathy (cognitive, emotional, or compassion) for such groups. Why would that be? One theory to consider is misplaced or misapplied empathy. First, it is possible that some Christians think that they should empathize with God rather than with people they consider to be sinners. For such people, a statement like “But for the grace of God go I,” a statement supposed to suggest empathy (or at least pity) morphs into “Better them than I.” Or a statement like “Love the sinner, hate the sin” results in a lot of hate and a little love.


Second, however, it is possible to believe that one is displaying empathy but be dead wrong. It is possible to wrongly perceive what is going on in someone else’s life. When we demonize, stereotype, or caricaturize a group, we are likely to empathize with our own image of the other rather than the actual person. We are especially prone to do this with God since our relationship with God is mediated through secondary sources rather than direct interaction (for the most part). Some see God as one who is looking for a blood price to turn away His wrath. While this metaphor may point to valued truth, it is one-sided. But so is the other side as God who is only to be understood in terms of forgiveness and love. God is more complex than these one-sided images. If we are complex, how much more complex should we expect God to be?


Empathy is always incomplete because our ability to perceive another as she truly is and as she responds to the world will always be limited.


Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books, 2006.


Matravers, Derek. Empathy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017.


“The Three Kinds of Empathy.” https://blog.heartmanity.com/the-three-kinds-of-empathy-emotional-cognitive-compassionate

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