November 19, 2010


Obama’s empathy problem: How could the US President have failed to exhibit the quality at the heart of his moral code? (Zac Alstin, 17 November 2010, MercatorNet)

Obama defines empathy as “the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us.” But these are just metaphors. The reality behind “putting myself in someone else’s shoes” is simply to imagine myself in that person’s circumstances. But can I really imagine what it is like to be an immigrant woman cleaning dorm rooms? How realistically can I imagine what it is like to be a laid-off steelworker? No wonder Obama says that this act of imagination is more demanding than sympathy and charity. We cannot really put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, because our imagination is always limited and subjective. We can try to understand another person's circumstances, but it borders on condescension to claim that we are able to see the world through someone else's eyes. As an act of imagination, empathy risks becoming mere pretence, deluding ourselves with false insights into other people's lives.

But the real problem is what lies behind empathy. Obama praises empathy as a means “to see the world through those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.” Yet the point of the Western ethical tradition is that other people are not really different from us at all. It should not take an act of imagination to identify with a hungry child, a laid-off steelworker or an immigrant cleaning-woman, because at heart we all share a common humanity. I do not have to stand in the shoes of a hungry child to know that the child needs and deserves to be fed, nor pretend to be a laid-off steelworker to know that it is terrible for the steelworker to be laid off.

Before 1903, we called it sympathy. Sympathy means “fellow-feeling”, and is based on actual affinity between people. If I stub my toe, you feel my pain; not because you have used observation and imagination to see the world through my eyes, but because you have toes of your own and you too have felt pain. This is our affinity or “sameness”: we feel the same, because we fundamentally are the same.

Somehow, our culture has begun to identify sympathy as a form of condescension, akin to what we now call “pity”. Naturally, we recoil from any suggestion that other people might be looking down on us in our struggles. So empathy has become the new virtue, a contemporary gloss on the golden rule. But empathy is a false virtue, based on a false premise of human difference, and an undue faith in our power to imagine another person's life.

The growing criticisms of Obama's presidency show up the flaws in an empathic approach to life: people do not need a leader who thinks he can imagine how they feel, they need a leader who already shares their feelings and priorities. The president should not have to “see the world through those who are different”, simply because there is no one so different that their ordinary fears and concerns cannot be shared by the highest office-holder in the land.

He's got the condescension down pat.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2010 6:30 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus