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On Empathy

On Empathy July 8, 2021

A few months ago conservative Christian influencer James White was warning of the dangers of empathy, even calling it sinful. Now, if one means empathy in the sense of emotional coercion, then obviously that’s not good. However, White was defining empathy as something someone does to make you feel guilty for their trauma (like racism or sexual abuse). It is allegedly self-indulgent rather than Christ-honoring. Empathy is wrong because it is an emotional response rather than a Stoic expression of religious devotion. He goes so far as to say that “sympathy is good, but empathy is sinful.” White then goes into a weird mode of self-defense mentioning polyamory and paedophiles along the way.

In response … no! Empathy is the pathos we feel for those who are suffering, often unjust suffering. We might not sympathize with them, that is, fully share in their experience of suffering; but we can always empathize with them, show solidarity with them in their suffering.

I would say that the absence of empathy is sinful, in fact, it is the root of all evil.

Consider this famous quotation:

“In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.

– Captain G. M. Gilbert, the Army psychologist assigned to observe Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials.

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