Our common humanity: are there limits to empathy?

The idea that we can be empathic rests, it seems to me, on the assumption that between us and those with whom we would have empathy there is a commonality of experience, at least in potential. I have never been starving, but I could be. I have been hungry, and I can, albeit only imaginatively, catch a glimpse of what it might be like to be hungry not just as an exception, but as a normality. There is some true sense in which I can empathise with those in that predicament, even though I have no direct experience of it. There is no fracture in the continuity of our common humanity that flows from my lack of experience of starvation and others’ only-too-real experience of it. And it is from this ability to empathise that the response of sympathy can develop. It’s of course by no means inevitable that sympathy with others will develop, and callousness and lack of will may well hijack the empathy that existed, and indeed the honest truth is that this is, for most of us, the most frequent outcome. But this is a moral failure, rather than an inevitable consequence of some kind of tear in the weft of our commonality as human beings.

As in starvation, so in the vast majority of human experience. From the commonplace to the extreme, most of us can enter into the feelings of others even where the circumstances that divide us are poles apart. I’ve never been in a serious car-crash; been on a battlefield; been blown up by a terrorist bomb; had startling good looks; been arrested; gone blind; been on X-Factor; split my trousers in public; nor indeed undergone any but a tiny fraction of all the possible experiences that there are to be had in this world. And yet, none of these dividing lines of experience truly divide me from my fellows. I can put myself in the shoes of those who have experienced these things – with greater or lesser success, I don’t doubt – but I have no sense of alienation because they’ve experienced them and I haven’t.

But there are some experiences that defeat my efforts at empathy completely. For example, I was reading this article about the difficulties of a trans-gender woman and found myself simply unable to connect. This is not about incomprehension. It’s not about lack of interest or care. It is purely about not having a clue what it might be like to have the feelings that this woman had when she was a man. And this is not restricted to situations in which one might want to be able to empathise. Today I also read about the sentencing of a paedophile and was struck by the similarity in the disconnect I felt in both these cases. I’ve had a similar thought before when reading about rapists; this inability, even via the imagination, to think what it might be like to be inside those experiences and behaviours. I’ve sometimes thought that perhaps this is not a qualitative, but only a quantitative, distinction. That there is, if you will, a continuous spectrum from the experiences I have had, to those such as these that I haven’t, and that this is merely my failure to imagine myself far enough along the spectrum. But the more I think about this, the less true that seems to me to be. There are loads of examples, even of extreme things, which I am quite able to think myself into. I have never, and I hope I never will, get so angry with someone that I physically attack them, even kill them. But I can quite easily put myself in such a situation imaginatively. Murder does not of itself cause a gulf between me and murderers. But lurking in some bushes, waiting for a lone woman to walk past, and then attacking and raping her – I simply don’t know where to begin in thinking about the state of mind required to perpetrate such a thing. Of course, such a scenario is not the one that exists in the majority of rape cases, so perhaps my lack of ability to empathise with rapists is not universal, but it certainly applies to random, stranger rape.

So what, you might wonder. So an awful lot, I think. Whenever I feel this disjuncture of empathy, this crack in the continuum of my ability to enter into the experience of another, good or bad, I hear an associated cacophony of alarm bells in my head. Because in this moment of disconnect arises the possibility of callous disregard. It is the opportunity for talk of monsters, of freaks, of perverts, of otherness. It is an opportunity we need steadfastly to pass up.


One thought on “Our common humanity: are there limits to empathy?

  1. I found your post really interesting, because it contrasts with my recent explorations of empathy. While you have been introspecting, I have been reading, most notably Frans de Waal’s “Age of empathy”, and Iain McGilchrist’s “The master and his emissary”, the book that really sparked my interest.

    Empathy is both a value and an emotion. As a value, it acts as a yardstick by which we measure a person’s behaviour. As an emotion it operates on 3 levels: at the most basic level it causes “emotional contagion”, you experience the pain, joy, … of another. At the conscious and cognitive levels it is expressed as sympathy, concern, consolation, and taking the perspective of another.

    Empathy is not unique to humans, as Frans de Waal’s work with non-human primates has documented scientifically and his popular science books have explained with wit and humanity. Empathy is also present in mammals such as dolphins, elephants, and dogs: http://tiny.cc/StRoch.

    Empathy seems to be hard-wired (via mirror neurons) into mammals, who have to care for their young.

    Humans (and other primates) are able to express empathy at one moment, and cruelty at another. Empathy occurs most easily between people and animals close to you. The more remote the connection, the harder it is to feel empathy, and the easier it is to be remote, aggressive, callous, cruel.

    For me the greatest mystery is not why empathy and its opposites coexist, but why it is taboo in the healthcare professions.


    Frans de Waal

    Iain McGilchrist

    Mirror neurons

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