Saturday, November 15, 2014

walk in another's shoes?


abc.net.au |  The word empathy is derived from the Greek empatheia - em meaning "into" and pathos meaning "feeling." It is, however, a modern word. The psychologist Edward Titchener introduced the term into the English language in 1909, in an attempt to translate the German word einfuhlung. As it was originally used, empathy meant being able to relate to the experience of another person, by mirroring it in one's mind.

Most moral codes regard empathy as a fundamental concept. It is written into the golden rule shared by all religions and systems of ethical thought: you should treat others as you would like others to treat you. This maxim is, on its face, one about reciprocity. Yet to reciprocate implies empathising. Mutual respect would be impossible, unless people were able to place themselves in the position of others and to imagine another person as their own self.

Within the English-speaking tradition, we can trace notions of empathy to the Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. According to David Hume, practical reasoning was never about reason alone: "Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions." In Hume's view, the extended sentiment of humanity - what he called sympathy - is ultimately "the foundation of morals."

As it was invoked by Hume and his contemporaries, sympathy is equivalent to our contemporary understanding of empathy. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith explained that sympathy involves observing someone and considering "what we ourselves should feel in the like situation." For example, "when we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm."

Empathy clearly has its place in our ethical and philosophical traditions, yet it is frequently resisted in our contemporary debates. Some commentators openly mock empathy. It is said to be an emotion only for bleeding heart do-gooders, who wish to flaunt their compassion for those in suffering. There can sometimes even be resentment when situations provoke feelings of empathy.

Consider the SBS program Go Back To Where You Came From. In the program's first season in 2011, a number of people were taken on a journey to recreate the experiences of refugees who came to Australia. In one episode, participants were placed on a leaky boat at sea. Conditions were simulated to replicate a sinking ship, which would be rescued by the Australian Navy. Not long after the participants were rescued, one of them protested that the exercise was illegitimate. The exercise was fraudulent, he said, because it had elicited his empathy without consent. The complaint was echoed by Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan, who slammed the program for involving "an empathy forced march." According to Sheehan, Go Back To Where You Came From distorted public understanding of asylum seeker issues. The debate was "not about empathy" but "about principle: control the borders."