Sympathy, empathy, and how a Stoic should relate to other people’s emotions

One of the persisting misconceptions about Stoicism is that it counsels the suppression of emotions. And yet, here is Seneca to his friend Lucilius: “For one must indulge genuine emotions; sometimes, even in spite of weighty reasons, the breath of life must be called back and kept at our very lips even at the price of great suffering, for the sake of those whom we hold dear.” (Letter CIV. On Care of Health and Peace of Mind, 3)

Or consider these quotes:

“The first thing which philosophy undertakes to give is fellow-feeling with all men; in other words, sympathy and sociability.” (Letter V. On the Philosopher’s Mean, 4)

“Am I advising you to be hard-hearted, desiring you to keep your countenance unmoved at the very funeral ceremony, and not allowing your soul even to feel the pinch of pain? By no means. That would mean lack of feeling rather than virtue.” (Letter XCIX. On Consolation of the Bereaved, 15)

And finally:

“It is possible for tears to flow from the eyes of those who are quiet and at peace. They often flow without impairing the influence of the wise man — with such restraint that they show no want either of feeling or of self-respect.” (Letter XCIX. On Consolation of the Bereaved, 20)

Having finally and permanently dispelled the myth (yeah, I’m in an optimistic mood today…) the question remains of how a Stoic should comport herself with respect to other people’s emotions: should we be sympathetic, empathetic, both, neither?

Difficult question, in part because there seems to be quite a bit of confusion about what sympathy and empathy are. I must admit at being surprised when I read the entry for sympathy vs empathy in the Merriam-Webster online. It says in part:

“In general, ‘sympathy’ is when you share the feelings of another; ’empathy’ is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them. … When a friend grieves over the loss of a loved one, you might send that friend a sympathy card. The card says that you are feeling sad along with your friend because your friend is grieving. … Empathy emphasizes the notion of projection. You have empathy for a person when you can imagine how they might feel based on what you know about that person, despite not having those feelings explicitly communicated. … The sentiment behind empathy is often presented in the familiar idiom to put (oneself) in another’s shoes.”

The M-W of course highlights that both sympathy and empathy are rooted in the Greek word pathos, meaning “feelings, emotion, or passion.” But the Stoics helpfully differentiated among involuntary emotional reactions (propatheiai), unhealthy emotions (pathē), and healthy ones (eupatheiai), while the modern meanings of both sympathy and empathy do not, since I assume they can apply to the full gamut of Stoic distinctions.

Also interestingly, the M-W says that sympathy is an old word, documented in the English language since the 16th century. Empathy, by contrast, is much more recent, and directly related to the rather novel science of psychology.

The M-W quotes John H. Dirckx as clarifying that “empathy has become a fad word for sympathy, though it was adopted expressly to mean something different from sympathy: ‘intellectual insight into another’s emotional state without sharing in it.'” (The Language of Medicine, 1993)

Confused? Wait, there is more. Recently, the psychologist Paul Bloom and, separately, my CUNY-Graduate Center colleague Jesse Prinz have made waves (and received quite a bit of criticism) because they have dared to question the received opinion that empathy is an unquestionably good thing.

Bloom summarized Jesse’s take in a New Yorker article: “Moral judgment entails more than putting oneself in another’s shoes. As the philosopher Jesse Prinz points out, some acts that we easily recognize as wrong, such as shoplifting or tax evasion, have no identifiable victim [and does no one to empathize with]. And plenty of good deeds — disciplining a child for dangerous behavior, enforcing a fair and impartial procedure for determining who should get an organ transplant, despite the suffering of those low on the list — require us to put our empathy to one side.”

The general argument put forth by Bloom is compelling. Quoting from the same article:

“Empathy has some unfortunate features — it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it. … Imagine reading that two thousand people just died in an earthquake in a remote country, and then discovering that the actual number of deaths was twenty thousand. Do you now feel ten times worse? To the extent that we can recognize the numbers as significant, it’s because of reason, not empathy.”

Bloom cites studies on the demonstrable power of empathy, but also on its blindness to the suffering of victims that cannot be named or visualized — like the countless millions who will suffer in the future if we don’t do something right now about climate change. He points out that empirical research shows that reliance on empathy makes for bad policy, and pushes people toward retribution regardless of the broader consequences of their decisions.

He is not counseling a world without empathy. That would be a world of psychopaths, and we don’t want that, it wouldn’t be conducive to human flourishing. The ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes is an important part of our humanity, it is what moves us to compassion toward the plight of others. But — according to Bloom and Prinz — for the purpose of moral decision making we ought to step back, set aside our own emotional reactions, and engage reason.

The Stoics would agree. Here are Seneca and Epictetus on the matter:

“[The wise man] will do willingly and highmindedly all that those who feel pity are wont to do; he will dry the tears of others, but will not mingle his own with them; he will stretch out his hand to the shipwrecked mariner, will offer hospitality to the exile, and alms to the needy — not in the offensive way in which most of those who wish to be thought tender-hearted fling their bounty to those whom they assist and shrink from their touch, but as one man would give another something out of the common stock — he will restore children to their weeping mothers, will loose the chains of the captive, release the gladiator from his bondage, and even bury the carcass of the criminal, but he will perform all this with a calm mind and unaltered expression of countenance.” (On Clemency, II.6)

“When you see anyone weeping for grief, either that his son has gone abroad or that he has suffered in his affairs, take care not to be overcome by the apparent evil, but discriminate and be ready to say, ‘What hurts this man is not this occurrence itself — for another man might not be hurt by it — but the view he chooses to take of it.’ As far as conversation goes, however, do not disdain to accommodate yourself to him and, if need be, to groan with him. Take heed, however, not to groan inwardly, too.” (Enchiridion 16)

But here is the thing: it sounds to me like what the Stoics are counseling is empathy, not sympathy, at least as Dirckx defines the former: “intellectual insight into another’s emotional state without sharing in it.” That seems to be exactly what both Seneca and Epictetus are talking about. So maybe Bloom and Prinz should object to the deployment of sympathy (when you share the feelings of another) in moral decision making, while empathy should be the thing to cultivate because it gets us the best of both worlds: we gain an insight into another person’s emotional state (thus retaining our humanity and keeping away from the psychopathic extreme), but we refrain from sharing such emotional state, not allowing it to cloud our reasoned understanding of what is going on.

Advertisements


Categories: Modern Stoicism

Tags:

20 replies

  1. We are, perversely, less likely to be moved by the suffering of 20,000 than the suffering of 2,000, because it is more difficult to imagine. I have read that empirical research by charities shows that an appeal showing a single person is much more effective than one showing more.

    As always, the difficult gap between our natural sympathies, and any kind of coherent moral philosophy

    Like

  2. Paul,

    But that’s the point. Because I’m cognizant of this effect, I pay attention to the numbers and give accordingly. Exactly as Bloom suggests we should do.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for addressing this topic, Massimo, which has perplexed me before.

    [btw, typo in the last sentence: “but web refrain” => “but we refrain”]

    Like

  4. This is why some humanist psychologists don’t praise empathy but accurate empathy which is a function of reason rather than emotions.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In an interview for the Chronicle of Higher Education http://www.chronicle.com/article/Empathy-Schmempathy/238478?cid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en&elqTrackId=69932f86131e46bc9d0790ad856e9c91&elq=4f467876212c4f53917f753b494c3101&elqaid=11612&elqat=1&elqCampaignId=4588, psychologist Paul Bloom, author of the book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, has little use for if not a disdain toward empathy. In the interview Bloom makes a distinction between empathy and compassion that isn’t necessarily there; a seeming one or the other choice; a straw man attack on empathy. Although I haven’t read his book, I think there is enough in this interview to consider rejecting the crux of his argument.

    The point of empathy is more than putting yourself in someone else’s shoes or imagining yourself in someone else’s emotional or social circumstances. Doing so is not a necessary and sufficient end in and of itself. The point of trying to be and persuading others to be empathetic is to arrive at an enhanced appreciation of other persons’ lives. THEN, based on that better understanding, adopting a less judgmental stance toward them than you had before doing so. From this adjusted, more knowledgeable perspective you gain a better chance of accurately understanding those persons and thereby behaving toward them in a more humane, useful manner; a form of more humane social relating that enhances both parties individually, and the larger groups they belong to, society and Humankind.

    Yes, one can behave compassionately toward another person without empathizing with them, as Bloom claims. And it is true that someone can be empathetic yet withhold compassionate thoughts or actions toward another. But being empathetic without consequently, at some point or time, being compassionate is not being virtuous. Few, if any, ever claimed, as Bloom implies, that empathy alone was necessary, sufficient or virtuous, really.

    “Bloom argues that when it comes to helping one another, our emotions too often spoil everything. Instead of leading us to make smart decisions about how best to use our limited resources altruistically, they cause us to focus on what makes us feel good in the moment. We worry about the boy stuck in the well rather than the thousands of boys dying of malnutrition every day.” ‘I don’t doubt for a minute that empathy can do good things. My claim is that, on balance, it’s bad for us’ [says Bloom].”

    No, empathetic thinking carried out by emotionally normal, healthy individuals has great potential for igniting their ability to devise reasoned compassionate responses. Making a bad response to human needs should not be laid at the doorstep of empathy. There is a large array of beliefs and values that can lead to a bad response that have little or nothing to do with feelings of empathy: political persuasion; adhering to a particular moral philosophy; following certain economic theories; practicing some religious beliefs, to mention a few..

    Yes, empathy by itself is no virtue. It is a human capacity we learn that more often than not prompts most of us as individuals to behave compassionately, and thereby be more effective in our social relations.

    “[I]f you want to be a moral person, empathy is the wrong way to do it.” Well, yes, behaving empathically by itself is unnecessary and insufficient for behaving morally. But, contrary to what Bloom’s declaration implies, empathy is not a misdirected waste of time or a practice that that stands in opposition to being compassionate, or a response that consequently, more often than not, makes us behave less optimally.

    Empathy, as others have speculated and there is good reason to conclude, may well have been a spark in our early cultural evolutionary past that led to our earliest ancestors’ increased reliance on social cooperation and mutual support.

    A pre-adaptive proto-moral notion akin to empathy, prevalent among some of our primate forbearers and to a degree among some contemporary social primates, may well have been something Homo sapiens built upon, by choice or necessity, in a threatening late Pleistocene environment in East Africa. It certainly would have been adaptive to do so. Being empathetic has been around for a long time, and persists for good reasons.

    Perhaps empathy is something we in the West abandoned in our subsequent distortion of Enlightenment notions of individualism – a distortion where our obligation to the other, the group, became subverted to the glory and wonder of our selves and freedom. Encouraging and placing value on empathy is not a waste of time or a misstep in trying to be moral or virtuous. It is, I think, a sorely needed correction on how we in the West, and now elsewhere, relate to each other.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “But the Stoics helpfully differentiated among involuntary emotional reactions (propatheiai), unhealthy emotions (pathē), and healthy ones (eupatheiai), while the modern meanings of both sympathy and empathy do not, since I assume they can apply to the full gamut of Stoic distinctions.”

    That’s the money-sentence for me.

    Personally, while I think the idea that the Stoics would condone “empathy, but not sympathy” is a good first-order approximation, IMO we can come up with a better model by using the 3-fold distinction between emotions.

    Specifically, I think the proto-passions ought to play a big role in effecting our “fellow-feeling with all humanity.” So, I think we should allows ourselves to feel, shall we say, a bountiful dose of “proto-sympathy.”

    We don’t control proto-passions directly, of course (by definition), but we do habituate them through our choices. Proto-passions are a sort of “sensor array” that responds to things that are according to (or not according to) human nature, and I sure as heck want that sensor array to be highly attentive to the situations of others. To allow other wise strikes me as non-virtuous.

    But that’s my take. Cicero and Augustine make an argument that comes pretty close to this (when trying to explain how the Stoics technically oppose but actually support forms of, say, compassion), but I’m not sure Seneca or Epictetus ever directly suggest this sort of expanded role for the proto-passions.

    AFAIK, their surviving texts don’t really give us a detailed picture of how apatheia and sympathy/compassion/empathy interrelate in the Stoic world view. They are clear that Stoicism does recommend some kind of feeling in such situations, but they don’t explain exactly what that feeling is, and how it is compatible with the dichotomy of control.

    Like

  7. I have occasionally seen a person paralyzed and utterly disabled by an excess of empathy (or sympathy). It struck me at the time that it could be described as a polar opposite of psychopathy. Evolutionary psychology would suggest that both conditions are mediated by certain brain circuits gone astray, or alternatively another circuit which is suppose to mediate those circuits.

    Behavioral cognitive therapy: have there been quality studies for either excess or lack of empathy treatment. My suspicion is that it may help but only a little.

    Like

  8. Seems to me that James’s analysis is correct. As further evidence, one might cite the obvious attempt of people who want to neglect others in need to argue that such people don’t deserve our empathy because they deserve what they are suffering. Perhaps the poor are just lazy; perhaps the elderly spent all of their money on luxuries instead of saving… This flight from empathy seems more responsible for neglect of the needy than empathy itself.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. James,

    It’s not clear if what you wrote are your thoughts or excerpt from the Chronicle’s article. Either way:

    “Bloom makes a distinction between empathy and compassion that isn’t necessarily there; a seeming one or the other choice; a straw man attack on empathy”

    Empathy is a distinct concept from compassion, so I don’t think there is any straw man there.

    “The point of trying to be and persuading others to be empathetic is to arrive at an enhanced appreciation of other persons’ lives”

    Not sure where that comes from. Empathy is a certain ability to feel, it doesn’t have a point, unless we construct one around it. And there is more than one way to do so.

    “one can behave compassionately toward another person without empathizing with them, as Bloom claims”

    Exactly, which contradicts your point above that there is no distinction btw empathy and compassion.

    “empathetic thinking carried out by emotionally normal, healthy individuals has great potential for igniting their ability to devise reasoned compassionate responses”

    Except that there is convincing empirical evidence that that is not the case.

    “contrary to what Bloom’s declaration implies, empathy is not a misdirected waste of time or a practice that that stands in opposition to being compassionate, or a response that consequently, more often than not, makes us behave less optimally”

    He doesn’t say either of the first two, and, again, there is empirical evidence in favor of the third one.

    “may well have been something Homo sapiens built upon, by choice or necessity, in a threatening late Pleistocene environment in East Africa”

    Maybe. But that environment was radically different from the modern one, so no wonder empathy misfires when we live among billions of people, instead of small bands of close relatives.

    “Perhaps empathy is something we in the West abandoned in our subsequent distortion of Enlightenment notions of individualism”

    Blaming the Enlightenment has become fashionable. As if some of the previous eras (you know, the Dark Ages) were a pinnacle of human compassion…

    E.O.,

    “I think we should allows ourselves to feel, shall we say, a bountiful dose of “proto-sympathy.””

    Why, exactly? The Stoics (and Bloom) are not aiming for a world of psychopaths. They explicitly say that human feelings are both inevitable and desirable. They are simply saying that those feelings shouldn’t be allowed to determine our response to moral questions. We need the guidance of reason (which is not the same as reason replacing emotions) for that. Sort of anti-Hume, if you will.

    “They are clear that Stoicism does recommend some kind of feeling in such situations, but they don’t explain exactly what that feeling is, and how it is compatible with the dichotomy of control.”

    They are compatible because proto-emotions are the source of our impressions. Then it is up to us to question and give or withdraw assent from those impressions.

    Jmyers,

    “Perhaps the poor are just lazy; perhaps the elderly spent all of their money on luxuries instead of saving… This flight from empathy seems more responsible for neglect of the needy than empathy itself.”

    Forgive me, but I wonder sometimes whether people actually read what I write (or, for that matter, what Bloom writes), or they simply react to keywords. There is no suggestion of a flight from empathy. And there is absolutely no implication that the poor are lazy and so on.

    Like

  10. [I said] “They are clear that Stoicism does recommend some kind of feeling in such situations, but they don’t explain exactly what that feeling is, and how it is compatible with the dichotomy of control.”

    [Massimo said]: “They are compatible because proto-emotions are the source of our impressions. Then it is up to us to question and give or withdraw assent from those impressions.”

    Agreed. What I meant was I’m not sure that the surviving Stoics ever explicitly broke down the question of compassion/sympathy in those terms, saying “we support the version of compassion that rises from proto-passions, even while we oppose the version that comes from fully-blown assent.” They are clear about the latter, but at best they hint strongly at the former.

    To state it differently, we can think of the (non-Stoic) pro-compassion/sympathy case as stating something like “sympathetic emotions are a vitally important part of our moral approach to other human beings.”

    The Stoics seem to offer one of two answers:

    Yes, they are important! But we believe that everything that is important or desirable about “sympathetic emotions” is captured by the proto-passions, and by judgments about actions we might take (ex. judging that other people’s circumstances have as much “selective value” as our own). We needn’t assent to calling external events “good” or “bad” to be appropriately compassionate people.
    No, they are not important. You need reason, and maybe some eupatheia focused on taking appropriate actions. But literally “feeling with” people is optional at most, and perhaps even something we should habituate ourselves to avoid.

    I certainly read the Stoics as supporting (1). But it may be that, say, Seneca fell in with (1), while others (perhaps Chrysippus, or the Stoics we hear mentioned as explicitly opposing compassion) fell closer to (2).

    Like

  11. jmyers, as I read it you were neither expressing such an attitude nor saying that Massimo does, but describing and lamenting what JK Galbraith has commented on: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy [but not Massimo’s or the stoics’!]; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.* “Stop the Madness,” Interview with Rupert Cornwell, Toronto Globe and Mail (6 July 2002), through Wikipedia

    But I would say that this is not so much flight from empathy, as rationalising a refusal to act on it.

    Like

  12. Massimo, I didn’t mean to imply that you or Bloom suggest we should fly from empathy. I meant that the fact that people like supporters of Trump and Republicans like him try to justify their lack of empathy for those in need by blaming​ them for some supposed fault suggests empathy’s importance in the decision to help someone. As for not reading what you write, perhaps you might just say that I read badly. 🙂

    Like

  13. E.O.,

    “What I meant was I’m not sure that the surviving Stoics ever explicitly broke down the question of compassion/sympathy in those terms, saying “we support the version of compassion that rises from proto-passions, even while we oppose the version that comes from fully-blown assent.” They are clear about the latter, but at best they hint strongly at the former.”

    That’s good enough for me. As you know, I do think we need to update Stoicism, so we can expand and elaborate on the original version. So long as what we come up with is still recognizably a Stoic philosophy, then good. If not, then we start calling ourselves something else.

    Jmyers,

    “As for not reading what you write, perhaps you might just say that I read badly. :)”

    Indeed, my bad, and apologies.

    “I meant that the fact that people like supporters of Trump and Republicans like him try to justify their lack of empathy for those in need by blaming​ them for some supposed fault suggests empathy’s importance in the decision to help someone”

    Actually, I don’t think that’s what they do. They say that empathy is important, and then they just go on with their selfishness unchecked.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I am surprised to see Massimo here endorsing Bloom’s argument. First, Paul Bloom’s idea of rational compassion is a bit of a delusion (and his idea of empathy a straw man). His move is to divide prosocial behavior in two separate domains, a la Kahneman fist and slow thinking dichotomy. The problem is, such a dichotomy, while intuitively appealing, is untrue (or fake!, as someone would say). It may appear that we can be ‘possessed’ by a pre-reflective, yet transient, tendency to empathize (I see you falling from a bike and sort of feel your pain) while we are also endowed with a rational faculty that allows us to make deliberate prosocial decisions. It may also appear that these two ‘faculties’ are rather independent. But it also appears to our eyes that is the sun that rotates around the earth. And yet we know that’s also untrue. The Boston Review dedicated to Bloom’s argument a whole issue some time ago, and we were invited to respond. In my lab we have shown that pre-reflective empathy and rational prosociality are actually heavily intertwined. We have shown that activity in your brain while you are watching someone in pain predicts your generosity in an economic game that does not require strategizing and is simply an index of costly altruism (pure and simple generosity) (Christov Moore, L., & Iacoboni, M. 2016. Self-other resonance, its control and prosocial inclinations: Brain-behavior relationships. Hum Brain Mapp, 37(4), 1544–1558. http://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.23119). We propose that human prosocial behavior is supported by the continuous interactions between a bottom up processing stream (what Bloom calls empathy) and a top down processing stream (what Bloom calls rational compassion). Our model (which is very sketchy at this stage, and that’s the main challenge we face right now) predicts that if you interfere with the top down stream you can make people more generous in a costly altruism game. This is the opposite of what Bloom’s model would predict. Using brain stimulation (brain zapping!) we did make people more generous in the costly altruism game (Christov Moore, L., Sugiyama, T., Grigaityte, K., & Iacoboni, M. 2016. Increasing generosity by disrupting prefrontal cortex. Soc Neurosci, 1–8. http://doi.org/10.1080/17470919.2016.1154105). The upshot of this is that if we figure out how the whole damn thing really works in detail and how to intervene and manipulate it, we could be in a position to reduce substantially the social impairments of many mental health disorders (long story here).

    Second, I have read so many times Massimo complaining about the stereotyped view of stoics as unemotional, and even here in this post he quotes very nice examples of the rich humanity of stoicism. And yet he seems to fall in the same trap that many people, including Bloom, seem to fall into. Dividing the hot emotions from the cold rationality as if the two things could not possibly co-exist. I think the Stoics got it right thousands of years ago. They weren’t using brain imaging and brain stimulation, yet they saw the full interactions between emotions and control. Bloom is not seeing that at all. He is seeing a war between emotions and reason while they need each other like two sides of a coin.

    Like

  15. Marco,

    I don’t think you are being charitable to Bloom’s point. First, there is nothing in what he says (or,in what I write) that implies a strictly dichotomous separation along the lines you describe. Even intertwined components are still components, i.e., conceptually separable. So while your experiments are indeed interesting, they seem to me to be beside the philosophical point.

    Second, a major part of my post was actually to argue that Bloom gets sympathy and empathy wrong, if one accepts the distinction between the two made by the Merriam-Webster.

    Third, indeed the Stoics got it right, I think. By the discipline of assent is predicated on making that very distinction you seem to deny, if I understood you correctly.

    Lastly, the most important point made by Bloom is that sometimes we need to override our emotive reactions in order to contemplate the big moral picture from a rational perspective. His examples seem to make the point obviously true. Neural scannings are fascinating from the point of view of detailing the mechanisms, but the psychological phenomena are well known, indeed they have been known for thousands of years, as you point out.

    Like

  16. An example of the interactions between reason and emotions (see my previous comment) may be as follows. A police maker is looking at a spreadsheet and the numbers displayed in the spreadsheet get transformed in his mind in the citizens’ sorrow and pain that those numbers will generate. Those mental images are grounded in the previous experiences of the policy maker. Changing those numbers lead the mind of the policy maker to visualize, or imagine, the changes in the citizens’ lives, such that the sorrow and pain is replaced by thriving and happiness.
    Bloom’s divide between emotions and reason makes this scenario impossible.

    Like

  17. Marco,

    Again, that strikes me as an uncharitable reading of Bloom, as no such strict dichotomy is implied by his argument.

    Like

  18. Massimo,

    overriding emotive reactions is a good and healthy thing to do. But to me the implicit message of Bloom is that rationality and emotion are fundamentally separate. Whereas the way I think about it is that rationality needs data and data are fed into ‘reason’ by ’emotions’. At the same time, reason can distort the data that emotions feed into it through top down control. I am worried when you say that components are still ‘conceptually separable’. I think that didactically is very useful to split something into its components. But at some point this splitting gets in the way of a deeper understanding, an understanding that can be eventually actionable

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Marco,

    I’m actually completely in agreement with your take. I just don’t see it as damning Bloom’s. But of course I may be missing something. I’ll take a look at your paper in detail asap.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Massimo,

    the papers report two connected empirical studies, the first brain imaging and the second brain stimulation (because brain imaging gives you only correlational information). However, as many peer-reviewed neuroscience articles, you won’t find much theorizing in them. It’s generally heavily chastised in those publications! But I have to confess we don’t have much more than some general ideas on how the bottom up and top down interact, what’s the nature of those computations, and all that jazz. It’s a pretty complex thing to figure out.

    Liked by 1 person

%d bloggers like this: