Empathy vs Compassion

June 14, 2019

I’ve worried a lot about empathy, people striving for empathy as a virtue, people conflating empathy, sympathy and compassion, and people claiming empathy when it seemed they were actually experiencing something more like self-centeredness and co-dependence.

Paul Bloom discussing empathy and cruelty with Russ Roberts on EconTalk was a seriously validating moment for me. I haven’t re-listened to that conversation, and it’s been a long-time since I heard it, but I’ve maintained a suspicion that I’d disagree with Paul Bloom on some nuances of his argument. But since I haven’t looked seriously at his work yet, it’s better for me to focus on the more important reaction I had on learning about his research: he is doing important work on a topic that I’ve been trying to sort out for most of my adult life.

Finally looking up “empathy” on Wikipedia after years of assuming no one else was thinking about this topic clearly, I’m learning that psychologists have identified the very things I’ve been thinking about, giving me accepted terms to replace whatever nonsense I’ve been trying to use to clarify my thinking.

The self-centered “empathy” that I’ve been worried about is what psychologists call the “personal distress” scale of “affective empathy” (aka emotional empathy). And what I’ve differentiated as sympathy is called the “empathic concern” scale of affective empathy. The current Wikipedia article even defines it as “sympathy and compassion for others in response to their suffering”. I would have to look into the actually source material, and try to improve my own understanding and experience, if I want to figure out if the “compassion” in that definition is used loosely or in some specific definition, and if it is congruent with my experience of “karuna”.

The empathy needed by entrepreneurs is “cognitive empathy” which is apparently completely orthogonal to affective empathy. Similarly to affective empathy, cognitive empathy is divided into scales that could make an experience of empathy more or less skillful.

Tags: philosophy morality