Empathy And Judgement

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Do you value empathy?  What is empathy? Is empathy a strength or weakness? These questions are a few queries about what I think is an important intellectual trait or virtue.

Our president said,We seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit – our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steel worker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.’ – Barack Obama

Empathy – the imaginative act of stepping into another person’s shoes and viewing the world from their perspective – is a trait that many great leaders have and many poor leaders need. Roman Krznaric a teacher who runs courses on how to expand your empathetic imagination, and is the expert on Empathy at The School of Life in London, believes empathy is key to success in most human endeavors.

Empathy is different than pity or sympathy.  If you see a report on poor people and how they are suffering in today’s economy and you feel sorry for them, then you are not expressing empathy but most likely pity or sympathy.  On the other hand, if you try to “put yourself in their shoes,” if you seek understanding of how they feel, what they feel, when they feel, where they feel, etc. then I believe you are expressing empathy.

When a group of people demonstrate and chant “death to America!”it’s important for us to not be deficit in empathy. By simply saying “they hate us” and not, figuratively, putting ourselves in their shoes does nothing but build a wall between us.  Usually that wall is torn down with war.  And, in my opinion, we need to emphasize peace, not war.

So how does one develop empathy?  I think it is important to understand what the opposite of empathy is; self-centeredness.  Yes, if you want to have empathy you must strive not to be self-centered. Think of it using the following question:  How can you fairly judge others’ ideas and beliefs unless you learn how to take on the perspectives of others and to accurately think as they think?

Another point of view regarding empathy can be found by going to the Foundation Of Critical Thinking.

So, if a group of people are chanting “death to America,” we need to take on their perspectives and as accurately as possible think as they think.  THEN we can judge them!

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3 Responses to Empathy And Judgement

  1. Rich Burnett says:

    Here is the problem Ron, A comes before E, therefore we see (a)pathy before we see (em)pathy

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  2. Ron says:

    Apathy only has to be seen first when we consider the two alphabetically. :-)

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  3. Jesse says:

    Hi Ron –

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this post. I think empathy is generally an emotion (perhaps, trait – whatever you want to call it) that one is likely more or less predisposed to, but I think it can be taught/learned as well. The key for learning (as with anything) is to keep an open mind (and I mean both “teacher” and “student” keeping an open mind).

    One of the things that I think causes (or at least precedes) our empathy deficit (which BTW I think Obama is correct in his characterization) is sort of a gang mentality. In other words, our society wants to manufacture and perpetuate differences between “us” and “those people.”

    The attitude sounds like “they’re not like us because… (insert reason)”. This presumption is easy, intellectually lazy and might even be good for certain sectors of the economy. You know, gotta have that gun, security system, gas mask, bomb shelter, huge military and on and on because of “those people.” Our lack of understanding leads to fear, probably some anger, and eventually an open wallet. And, in a free society, when people are willing to trade liberty for security, they end up with neither. (That’s not mine – I’m pretty sure that was Ben Franklin).

    We also tend to view our differences with others (both domestically and around the world) in terms of “right” and “wrong”. But, the truth is differences are often are just that – differences. No judgment required. (When you mentioned “judgment” in you post, I think you were referring to judging the acts of another through their eyes or worldview – and I agree about the appropriateness and necessity of judging acts. I’m referring to the judgment of the differences themselves, which is never good in my book.)

    All this could be changed ultimately with education and open minds. Differences and diversity are good things, broadly speaking. After all, variety is the spice of live.

    Jesse

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