How much Empathy is enough Empathy?

I have learned that analyzing empathy is not an easy task. However, it is a discussion which is important because of the value of empathy as a human attribute. Empathy is valuable because it allows humans to interact successfully, it does this by helping us understand people’s emotions and consequently their actions. Throughout this blog sequence, I have discussed the limitations of empathy, the value in empathy and how empathy can exist in different contexts.

More importantly, this thread focused on the varying forms of empathy. Blog 4 looks at an argument which poses a limitation on the accuracy empathy. Blog 5 talks about virtual empathy and Blog 6 looks at self-serving empathy. This final blog is aimed at helping us recognize the point at which the understanding we have of people’s emotions is sufficient for it to result in accurate empathy. To do that we will first look at the respective forms of empathy in the blogs in this thread and then attempt to define accurate empathy.

So What is Empathy?

Empathy can loosely be defined as the ability to “imagine” and ultimately understand how someone else is feeling as well as share their feelings. This definition does not clearly state whether or not the feelings you feel (as an empathizer) are exactly the same as the individual you are empathizing with or if your understanding of their situation just results in an arbitrary emotional response. In addition to this, the definition brings out one of the limitations of empathy. Which is, our ability to understand someone’s emotions relies on our ability to imagine their emotions and their perspective.

Change your perspective

To empathize we must change your perspective


Different forms of empathy in the blog sequence

Blog post 4 set the foundation for this sequence of blog posts. The Blinkering Effect vs Moral Deliberation considers a limitation of empathy towards people who commit atrocious acts. In Morton’s article, Empathy for the Devil, he speaks about how most people are “reluctant” to overcome the barriers to empathize with people who commit atrocious acts (322). In this article, I look at the possibility that this limitation could be viewed as a tool that fosters accurate empathy. With this reluctance, we are able to engage in “Moral deliberation” which results in an adequate amount of understanding making a conducive environment for accurate empathy.

Blog post 5 speaks on empathy in social media which is commonly referred to as “virtual” empathy. Is Social Media really destroying our Capacity for Empathy? expands on the effect of social media and analyses if this effect creates or destroys our capacity for empathy. Posing the question, is virtual empathy accurate empathy? In discovering the differences between real and virtual empathy we considered the extent we understand people’s emotions via social media. This helped us consider whether or not virtual empathy is accurate or not.

Blog 6, Is Jean’s empathy self-serving?, speaks about the kind of empathy most people experience, empathy that is self-serving. This blog looks at the empathic emotions Jean expresses towards the black minority community in Go Set a Watchman. After analysing specific interactions between characters in the novel, we consider the possibility that Jean’s empathy is only a result of her personal anger. The question of whether or not self-serving empathy is accurate empathy is something I struggled with a lot. Take for instance the motive behind voluntary work. On one hand, you are helping the community. However, you could be motivated by the personal satisfaction that comes with helping others. I could argue that doing charity work makes one feel better for being privileged. This idea of self-serving “good acts” is expressed in the 6th blog post. After discovering the possibility that Jean’s empathy is self-serving, we are left to wonder whether or not her empathy is based on an adequate understanding of the challenges faced by the black community so that it can be deemed accurate empathy.

It is safe to assume that the most desirable form of empathy is accurate or legitimate empathy, and I hope to explore whether or not virtual and self-serving empathy falls under accurate empathy.  To find out whether or not these different types of empathy are mutually exclusive to accurate empathy we need to clearly define accurate empathy.

Accurate empathy

Upon research, I discovered that the definition of empathy and more especially accurate empathy heavily depends on the context in which empathy is required. Some situations better foster empathy than others. Take for instance an experience most people can relate to, a crying baby on a plane. Normally people have the ability to relate to and empathize with a child outside of a plane. However, more often than not people get annoyed by a screaming child on a plane, that does not mean you are unable to empathize with children in distress but this particular context resulted in a different emotional response. In Duncan’s article, Perceived Empathy, Accurate Empathy and Relationship Satisfaction, he speaks of the relationship between perceived and accurate empathy in heterosexual relationships. To study this relationship, he conducts an empirical investigation. Duncan argues that “higher accurate empathy will occur when people assume that the other person is more like them and when both people have more similar views” (329). Relating back to the scenario in the plane, parents tend to empathize with the parent of the child over empathizing with the child because of their shared experience, parenting.

Duncan’s definition of accurate empathy is also applicable in our above-cited blogs. In The Blinkering Effect Vs Moral Deliberation, we realize that “morally sensitive people” choose not to acknowledge the similarities they have with perpetrators and it is for this reason that the Blinkering Effect of Decency or Moral Deliberation inhibits accurate empathy. In the blog post on virtual empathy, we understand that without this belief of similarity we cannot express or experience accurate empathy (on social media), according to Duncan. And finally, in the blog about Jean’s self-serving empathy we recognize that her empathy is self-serving because of a lack of understanding of the group she is empathizing with. Though she wants to believe that she is similar to the black community her privileges blind her from fully experiencing empathy. She does not fully understand struggles faced by the community, however, she believes that she does. So according to Duncan’s standards, Jean does experience accurate empathy because his definition depends on the empathizer’s perception of their own understanding and their perception of the similarities they share with the group they are empathizing with.

In Kraus’s article, Social class, Contextualism and Empathic accuracy, claims your economic status influences your capacity for accurate empathy.  Kraus states that “Empathic accuracy reflects the ability to judge the emotions of other individuals” (1717). So we can see that the accuracy of empathy is based on your ability to understand the next individual. This is where our driving question comes up again, at what point is one’s understanding sufficient for it to become accurate empathy. This blog will continue to explore this question.

Work Cited

Morton, Adam, and Peter Goldie. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 318-30. Print

Cramer, D., and S. Jowett. “Perceived Empathy, Accurate Empathy and Relationship Satisfaction in Heterosexual Couples.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 27.3(2010): 327-49. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.

Kraus, M. W., S. Cote, and D. Keltner. “Social Class, Contextualism, and Empathic Accuracy.” Psychological Science 21.11 (2010): 1716-723. Web. 30 Oct. 2016

Image references

“Change your perspective”


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