The Impossibility Of Empathy

donald_trumpEmpathy, according to my atheist blogger friend Violetwisp, provides a moral framework by which a person can make moral judgments. So, no, God did not “set eternity in our hearts” or a “God-shaped vacuum” or a “moral compass.” Our morality comes from our ability to “understand and share the feelings of others.” (Oxford American Dictionary)

Which is impossible.

No one can actually understand and share the feelings of someone with a radically different experience from ours. Take Donald Trump, for example. I’ve never been a multimillionaire. I’ve never had my own TV program. I’ve never had multiple marriages. I’m not a man. I have never wanted to run for President or to deport illegal aliens by the truckload or to carpet bomb the Syrians. There are many, many other things that make my life and experience different from Mr. Trump’s. So how am I to understand and share his feelings?

I can’t. We could easily be from different planets. He says deplorable things about women. He encourages violence against those who protest against his positions. He advocates for religious discrimination in the name of homeland security. He condones torture. Many of his “plans” for solving the problems in the US are unconstitutional.

I don’t understand someone who behaves as he does unless I assign motives behind his actions. My conclusion is that he cares more for himself than he does for others. Consequently, he’ll find a loophole so he doesn’t have to pay income taxes, then blame the government for the existence of the loophole. “If you’d just stopped me from being greedy and selfish, then I would have been like all other Americans,” he seems to be saying.

Am I empathetic toward Mr. Trump? No. I believe I understand him. He wants what he wants when he wants it and doesn’t care who he bulldozes out of his way to get the power or prestige or possessions he’s set his sights on. But do I feel for him? He’s had advantages in this life that few have had, and he comes to the twilight years of his life as a power-hungry bully who lies and manipulates and blusters and fawns—whatever works to create sycophants. I don’t feel for him. I think he should know better, that he should have done more with what he’d been given.

The truth is, he might have experienced heartbreak when he was young. He might have been lonely and alone as a child and has been acting out from a place of pain ever since—to live in a way that keeps him from feeling the heartache, to exact revenge on a perceived perpetrator, to make up from what he considers his lost youth. I simply have no way of knowing what is behind his deplorable actions and words and ways of relating to people in public.

I do not empathize with him. I don’t even want to. I don’t want to explain away what he’s done or what he continues to do.

tex_watsonEmpathy is a failed strategy. It cannot move me closer to Donald Trump. I could extrapolate from that one example to a host of others. I don’t empathize with David Duke and other racists. I don’t empathize with the Planned Parenthood execs who sold fetal body parts. I don’t empathize with the Manson family prisoners who have had parole denied repeatedly.

How am I supposed to empathize with a sex-trafficker? With a mob hit man? With an ISIS suicide bomber?

In case after case after case, I don’t understand someone or I don’t feel with them. And we haven’t even begun to talk about people from other countries who have customs and practices and traditions that are completely foreign to my experience.

Empathy doesn’t cut it. Can’t cut it. I don’t know enough to understand all these people. I don’t care enough to feel with them in their experiences.

Empathy doesn’t give us a moral framework apart from our own personal experience. And then we only feel with people based on our own perspective. Consequently, our moral judgment becomes, what do I want to have happen? So if I want abortion, then it’s legal. If I want slavery, then it’s legal. If I want divorce, then it’s legal.

Another gaping failure of empathy is to explain how all those unempathetic behaviors came into being in the first place. If the first humans were empathetic toward one another, all should have been well. But someone at some point introduced behavior that contradicted the moral framework that existed because of the perfect empathy governing those early relationships. What caused empathy to break down?

There is no answer to that question in the moral framework constructed by people who look to empathy as the solution to sin.

Yes, sin. That’s what we’re talking about. When one person violates another person, either in word or deed, it’s sin. Sin is actually deeper than that, but for the purpose of this post. focusing on the observable is sufficient.

Empathy can not change sin. That’s really what I’ve been saying. Empathy can’t explain why people sin, and it can give no answer to the cycle of sin—either those who sin against another or those who have been sinned against.

There’s only one remedy that has proven effective—forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t depend on my understanding or my feeling with another. I can forgive without knowing why someone behaved in a despicable way. I can forgive and work toward a restored relationship without feeling with the person who holds hatred in his heart.

I’ve played the empathy card before. I’ve sat with friends and listened to their tales of woe. I’ve worked to understand and feel with them when they have been wronged and mistreated. And what did it bring? Relief? No. It nurtured more of the feelings of resentment and anger that the original actions engendered. No relationship healing occurred. Only greater division.

But forgiveness—that’s a different thing. Forgiveness humbles and heals. Forgiveness bridges gaps without excusing or erasing responsibility. Forgiveness requires growth and added maturity in both the forgiven and the forgiver.

I suppose forgiveness is impossible too, apart from the great example of forgiveness God enacted when He sent His Son to provide a way for us to access His forgiveness; apart from the power of God to work in and through our frail human desires.

Yes, God alone is stronger than the heinous acts one person does against another. Only God can turn people who hated each other into friends. Only God can give the ability for a Nazi concentration camp prisoner to reconcile with one of her guards. Only God can lead a kidnap victim to forgive the men who were responsible for her husband’s death. Only God can put it in the heart of a congregation to forgive the racist who gunned down their loved ones in their own church.

God does what empathy can never do. Because God can do the impossible. Empathy . . . not so much.

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Published in: on November 4, 2016 at 6:27 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Bravo

    If sure love a coherent explanation of how empathy produces any moral standard

    Like

  2. […] wrote a great post called “The Impossibility of Empathy” in which she confronts the idea that empathy is a sound framework for making moral decisions. I […]

    Like

  3. Really good post Becky, I agree with so much of what you say.

    Liked by 1 person


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