I’ve seen a number of attacks on “empathy” recently, even a book, Against Empathy. I usually get a few sentences into one of these exercises in counter-narrative and shrug.

They seem a bit like the resentments of jilted lovers: the denigration comes from dashed love. Or else it’s just wanton contrarianism.

But what is the error? Let me guess. Perhaps too much is made of empathy, these days. Maybe because we live in an intellectually stilted, post-modern era, empathy has been forced by our cultural narrowness and the general lack of humanistic education to serve beyond its natural capacity.

Empathy isn’t everything in psychology or ethics. But it is something. Perhaps two or three somethings.

My working model, since my earliest philosophical speculations (adaptations from Plato, Aristotle, Smith, Spencer, et al.), has been that empathy is pretty important. A cardinal virtue, even.

In my old schema, it is the other-regarding virtue of our emotional life, a check on unbalanced temper as it applies to others, or even oneself conceived objectively (especially one’s self as conceived at a distant time, past or future).

But it is not justice. It is not truthfulness. (My two other other-regarding cardinal virtues.) They are linked, as are all the virtues, but a person can excel at one and be deficient in others.

And like all the virtues, a person may likely be born with an aptitude for some but not others. That is, a person can take naturally to one virtue, but be clumsy (at best) about others. Why, I’ve even known folks to be reflexively just in their social dealings, but almost congenitally imprudent. (Prudence being the self-regarding virtue of the active life.)

A person possessing empathy but lacking justice can be dangerous, to self and others. Indeed, one might define human moral error as an imbalance of the virtues, a lack of the full set. Maybe the vice at the heart of what we call the “moralistic” is the mania that results from cultivating one virtue to the exclusion of others.

So empathy isn’t everything. It certainly is not love, or faith, or hope (none of which are cardinal virtues to my reckoning, two perhaps not being virtues at all).

Empathy also is not prudence, or temperance, or the savviness with concepts that, for want of a better word, I call wisdom.* Empathy’s earliest serious investigators, Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer, who discussed its importance under the name “sympathy,” never assumed or even implied it was.

But empathy’s lack of status as the be-all and end-all of sociality or personal development or ethics does not mean it is nothing, or even “not much.”

twv


* My old list of cardinal virtues is not traditional. They are all mentioned, above, but here they are in order:

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