by Ron Hedgcock
I am troubled by certain of the comments about empathy that I find on this site. What I plan to discuss can be summarized under a few headings:
1) Morality and empathy
2) Empathy and sympathy
3) The outer trappings of empathy
Morality and empathy
If possessing and exhibiting empathic qualities is to be seen as a moral issue, then being empathic means that I’m good and moral, and being unempathic supposedly means that I’m bad and immoral.
A lot of Autistics get rather angry or indignant when it is asserted that they are, by definition, almost incapable of empathy. Why? Is it a reflection on their goodness? Is it because empathy is considered a virtue? Or is empathy merely a particular faculty that some people have — and may or may not exhibit — while others don’t have it at all, with no lapse in virtue?
Certainly the quality is highly prized among human beings. It is of the greatest value to persons in intimate relationships of all kinds. And in those cases, it can commonly make all the difference between a relationship that will work and one that will not work. So the male partner in a marriage, for example, will be more readily recognized as a good man or husband if he has empathy. He is probably more likely to fail at his relationship if he doesn’t have it.
A good doctor, or one possessing a “bedside manner,” may be recognized as empathic. Counselors and psychologists, as well as priests and other ministers of religion, do well to have this empathy. They can fail at many crucial aspects of their work if they don’t have it. So they may well be classified as good if they have it, and as bad if they don’t have it.
Of course, as is argued time and time again by Autistics, the empathy that we often feel internally and emotionally may not be expressed or demonstrated most appropriately in word and action. And this, of course, can cause the Autistic to be classified as being bad by the general public — or even by their nearest and dearest.
We Autistics would like to feel that, with the intuitive (and empathic) insight that is claimed by so many NTs, surely, just surely, they should have the capacity to see inside us and to recognize the inherent sincerity, compassion, empathy, and goodness that many of us experience so powerfully? In this view, empathy is a good quality or capacity that all persons should possess and exhibit.
I notice that we don’t generally or legitimately blame a person afflicted with Alzheimer’s for any lack of empathy, so we do take it for granted that some people are incapable of expressing that capacity. And so the question naturally arises: are such persons to be considered as essentially lacking in moral virtue if they don’t feel or express empathy? I don’t think such is the case.
Empathy and sympathy
Another question: Can it be taken for granted that people actually know for certain whether they are empathic or not? Is it possible that the capacities or experiences interpreted by them as empathic may actually be different in nature altogether — may consist of sympathy rather than empathy?
Of course, this issue is completely speculative. None of us can really be certain that the experience we have inside corresponds precisely with the experience of another. I give as an example the use of common words and what they mean to me. I am a pretty well-educated person, with a wealth of reading behind me in psychology, religion, and personal relations, and with a wide vocabulary that I have put to good use in the public view. And yet, it was not until my 50s that I came to realize that my comprehension of such common and universally understood words like love and intimacy and bonding was completely unorthodox.
But whenever the matter of empathy comes up among Autistics, I hear and read people protesting “Of course I experience empathy!” And again and again, through some of the heartfelt and significant comments I see on the Autism and Empathy site, there are adults and children who feel deeply and excruciatingly the agonies that others are going through, or who get deeply involved in the suffering of animals, or in incidents and tragedies on television or on the screen. The stimuli that they are experiencing affect them deeply and can frequently knock them off balance.
But to me, there is no indication that, in these accounts, they have any real knowledge of just what is going on inside the head of the observed suffering person. From my perspective, they are essentially reacting in sympathy with the outer expressions of that other. It is just like one violin string vibrating in resonance with another string. The feeling onlooker is not necessarily experiencing or exhibiting any knowledge of the other party’s personal experience. The person is essentially responding to the outer expression of the emotion. And, as I see it, this is sympathy and not empathy.
When you consult a doctor, counselor or clergyman, you don’t get the best results if all they display is emotional resonance. You are wanting understanding, knowledge of your inner states and issues, insight, and help. Sympathy in itself may be very nice for an immediate fix or a sense of not being alone, but the truly empathic doctor, counselor, or clergyman will simply not be getting carried away by his or her reactions to you. To my mind, empathy that is worth its salt will retain some degree of detachment, some efficient process of boundary maintenance, so that the person can do the best for you without emotional imbalance.
Now, I am one of these distinctly sympathetic types. I can find myself distressed beyond measure if people are fighting or arguing in my presence. I can weep buckets of tears at certain scenes in movies, or on hearing certain pieces of beautiful music. But this I would maintain is not empathy. Based on a profound sensitivity, it is often considered sentimentality – something that can take one only so far before it becomes a selfish wallowing in emotion. I’m reminded of the old story about the aristocratic Russian lady who left her poverty-stricken coachman out in the freezing cold, and then went into the theatre and wept at the little child dying on stage. She forgot about any moral obligation to the coachman.
When I’m confronted by a distressed person, I might be affected by the emotion the person is exhibiting; and despite my possible incomprehension of just why the person should be upset at the time, I truly feel not empathy or understanding, but rather compassion. I’m thinking “Here is a person in distress, and heaven knows why, but nevertheless, perhaps I can go out of my way to help, and to stop the pain.” One can be deeply compassionate with or without empathy in its strictest meaning. I have generally found that Aspies carry a lot of compassion.
My pain on watching another person suffer might well be based on my own discomfort with the situation, as well perhaps with my confusion, and even my fear. Another person enduring a powerful and distressing upheaval can very easily be frightening to me. My resonating pain, and the desperate need I feel to help may be partly due to my passionate desire to put an end to the horrible input I am getting.
The outer trappings of empathy
Is it possible to fabricate the outer trappings of empathy, based solely perhaps on one’s compassion and sympathy?
I often find it impossible to see into the minds or hearts of my fellows, however closely related. I discovered that the longer I was married to any of my three wives, the more difficult I found it to “read” them. Sometimes, I feel that it is not so much a matter of lacking a “theory of mind” that spoiled my relationships and socializing, but rather a certain inability to actually be able to detect a real person behind the face and body of the other. For me, I’ve never understood just what it means to “know” another person, no matter how closely related. All others are essentially aliens, and that doesn’t mean that they are dangerous or nasty aliens. It means that, as an Aspie, I feel that I belong to a different species or come from the “wrong planet.” I value my friends very highly, but I can’t say that I truly know or understand any of them at all. I don’t have any of that problem in my relations with my cats. Somehow, we belong together almost to some other common lot or species.
However, despite my sense of not being able to understand others, I have become proficient in giving others a pretty good simulation of empathy. Observing human nature and mixing with people was a good basis. Training myself to treat all others with respect and kindness was a further step. Essential to the process is to always take it for granted, despite my inward lack of ability to recognize the person behind the face and voice, that there just is such a person and to treat the person in accord with that assumption. I have always retained and developed my inherent compassion for others, recognizing that this is the essence of human progress and relationships.
Of course, any sympathy I might naturally feel needs to be tempered with balance and common sense so that I don’t go overboard in taking my spontaneous assumptions about others too much for granted. I need to listen to others — to take on board seriously what they tell me, and not to assume that what they are going through is the same as what I might go through in similar fashion. In other words, retaining an unselfish and attentive mind, I can probably do much for others, by my compassion and good will, even when I lack true understanding.
About the Author: Ron Hedgcock is an Australian male of 75 years. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s in his mid 60s. He has lectured extensively on his experiences and speculations, and had his own book, Confessions of an Unashamed Asperger, published in paperback in early 2011. The question of empathy and its nature has interested him for years.
Empathy, Sympathy, and Morality was written expressly for Autism and Empathy.