On (perfect) empathy

empathy (n.)

modeled on German Einfühlung (from ein "in" + Fühlung "feeling"), which was coined 1858 by German philosopher Rudolf Lotze (1817-1881) as a translation of Greek empatheia "passion, state of emotion"

Does perfect empathy exist?

What does “perfect” mean in this sense? How is empathy defined? Nietzsche and Hobbes were firm in their belief that perfect altruistic empathy could not exist – that in each empathic action a person can always seek out some egoistic motive.

Before reading Zaluski’s paper on the three types of empathy, I used to classify empathy as cognitive, emotional and applied empathy. I used to think mostly about cognitive empathy in relation with good design, and compassionate empathy in relation with people. Zaluski’s paper aims to clarify the concept of empathy by distinguishing its three types: the perfect, the truncated, and the contaminated empathy.

1. Perfect empathy

Perfect empathy is understood as the combination of three elements:

a. cognitive empathy

b. affective empathy

c. the tendency to take empathic actions

a. “Cognitive empathy, in its full-fledged form, is the capacity for a comprehensive and ethically proper understanding of other people’s emotions. It should be stressed that cognitive empathy may, in particular cases, be confined to understanding the other persons’ reasons for emotions, not the emotions themselves, since the reasons for a given emotion may fail to generate the emotion itself.”

“A form of of cognitive empathy, called sometimes “projective empathy,” is an autonomous ethical capacity, which is different from cognitive empathy as targeted at the other person’s emotions. Without projective empathy one would not be able to respect the other person’s values, goals, moral and religious views, if they were different from one’s own.”

b. “Affective empathy, in its full-fledged form, is the tendency to emotionally respond to other people’s emotions in an ethically proper way, which means that it implies cognitive empathy.”

c. “The empathic action tendency is the tendency to undertake an ethically proper action (e.g., helping or consoling) as a result of the emotional response to the other people’s emotions.”

However, perfect empathy is not “a free-standing ethical capacity“, because “it implies a sense of justice, or more generally, the knowledge of moral rules, which specify in what circumstances an emotion of sorrow or joy is justifiable, and what action is ethically appropriate in a given situation. Thus, the perspectives for constructing an ethics of empathy are very dim.”

2. Truncated empathy

“Truncated empathy lacks one of the free elements of perfect empathy, or contains one or more of them but only in a truncated form. (…) The morally reprehensible form of truncated empathy is the combination of cognitive empathy with the absence of affective empathy, i.e., the combination of the capacity to recognise the other person’s emotions with the incapacity to react to them. This kind of combination is characteristic for psychopaths, though, arguably, is not sufficient for creating a psychopathic personality.”

3. Contaminated empathy

Contaminated empathy arises when we feel one of the following “amoral feelings”:

“(a) the feeling of relief, i.e., thankfulness at the contrast between our fortune and the sufferer’s misfortune;

(b) the feeling of anxiety about our own good future arising at the sight of the sufferer’s misfortune;

(c) the feeling of superiority over the other person (i.e. pity);

(d) and the personal distress: the unpleasant feeling, arising at the sight of the sufferer’s sorrow, caused by the very picture of suffering rather than by anxiety about one’s own good fortune.”

These four self-regarding motives can functions also as free-standing motives and can be regarded as different forms of pseudo-empathy.

Can we identify genuine, “perfect” empathy? Is the nature of relationships we have with people influencing the arise of perfect and contaminated empathy? How do we react to the suffering of strangers vs how do we react to the suffering of family and friends?

Altruism plays also an important role in this discussion and perhaps could offer us some answers.

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