Empathy’s Many Masters: Why Her and Not Him?

Adam Morton’s essay “Empathy for the Devil” speaks to the presence of a barrier that appears within decent people when they attempt to empathize with someone who has committed an atrocious act. The idea is—in order to achieve empathic understanding, we must first breakthrough the barrier preventing us from doing so. He believes there are three distinct dimensions that need to be understood in order to achieve a level of understanding necessary to feel empathy accurately. These dimensions are: discovering what the barrier is, the attitude towards overcoming it, and “the nature of the emotion or motivation that facilitates the process” (327). On the surface, Morton’s reasoning is hard to contend with. Especially because I agree that there are obstacles that need to be overcome in order to experience empathic concern for someone that has committed an evil act. However, I argue that Morton is pushing to hard to find a tangible way to measure one’s empathetic capability, and that one’s capability and empathic accuracy will always differ in relation to another’s.

Lets take his example of the battered wife for instance. It is understandable why a wife would want to kill her husband in order to escape her abusive relationship. Even if we question how she could have committed an act that she so strongly opposed, people can surely empathize with her. Something to consider is that there is likely a considerable number of people that empathize with the deceased husband as well. The picture of this scenario can be painted in many ways, despite telling the same story. The emotion experienced will differ from one person to the next, but that doesn’t mean any one person is experiencing a false empathy for either spouse in this example. In other words, empathy can be considered highly relative to those feeling it, and thus a very malleable concept.

In the book “Intimate Relationships,” author Rowland Miller speaks on the topic of social cognition, and how “What we think helps to determine what we feel…” in terms of how we interpret why others do what they do (105). When there are many possible ways to interpret an event, we simply conjure an assumption for the why/how. We have the ability to “…choose a forgiving rationale, a blaming one, or something in between” (105). By choosing to take the perspective which gives someone the benefit of the doubt, we are then able to generate empathic concern for said person. This is important because if we think the husband is an abusive scumbag, and the wife is an abused saint, we will have a hard time empathizing with the husband and easy time doing so for the wife. This isn’t due to a lack of information, or a lack of understanding. Even if we are given the information to understand all three dimensions of someone’s situation, how can we ever truly distinguish fact from fiction? We can’t. We will always be limited in our understanding of specific details. The idea that people can empathize with two different people in the same scenario suggests we are simply choosing to empathize with those we see fit to empathize with–regardless of the actions that person takes. As each individual differs from the other, each perspective of the same scenario will inevitably differ to some degree. We’re human, and we’re always going to have an underlying prejudice that impacts the way we see things. Trying to take someone else’s perspective in its entirety will never be achievable to the extent Morton requires it to be. Does that make our empathy for others less real? By that logic, every instance of apparent empathy would be considered “pseudo-empathy,” and I don’t agree with that (329).

Here we have a front and center perspective of a man in a room. We think we see everything as it is, but do we?

This is the nature of our limitation when we try to take someone’s perspective. We can never know if we’re truly embodying another’s perspective, because we make subtle assumptions that operate beyond our awareness–no matter the situation.

In this instance, famous actor Robert De Niro steps up and voices his opinion on Donald Trump. Much of America empathizes with him, but not all.

We may all have the ability to empathize with anyone, but the paradigm that we use to view the world may be the cause for who we find worth empathizing with in the first place. To contrast the former video, we see those that empathize with Trump instead. The importance of this contrast is the difference in paradigms. Those that are choosing to empathize with Robert De Niro are apart of an in-group, and view Donald Trump to be of the out-group, and vice versa for those that are supporting Trump.

We just have to accept empathy for what it is: useful, needed, malleable, and unpredictable.

 

Works Cited

Miller, Rowland S. Intimate Relationships. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2012. Print.
Morton, Adam. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives (2011): 318-30. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.
Quirkology. “Assumptions.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 18 December 2012. www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNbF006Y5x4. Web. 15 October 2016.
Ronnie Brag. “FULL VIDEO – Robert De Niro Attacks Donald Trump.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 07 October 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly_LrXl795Y. Web. 18 October 2016.
Saturday Night Live. “Voters For Trump Ad – SNL.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 06 March 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qg0pO9VG1J8. Web. 18 October 2016.

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