EMPATHY, SYMPATHY, CARE
(Accepted 31 July 1997)
Mencius famously remarked:
No man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others
Suppose a man
were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. He
would certainly be moved to compassion.
What Mencius’s translator calls compassion is an instance of what I
shall call sympathetic concern or sympathy. It is a feeling or emotion
that (a)respondstosomeapparentthreatorobstacleto an individual’s
good or well-being, (b) has that individual himself as object, and (c)
involves concern for him, and thus for his well-being, for his sake.
Seeing the child on the verge of falling, one is concerned for his
safety, not just for its (his safety’s) sake, but for his sake. One is
concerned for him. Sympathy for the child is a way of caring for
(and about) him.
Sympathy differs in this respect from several distinct psycholog-
ical phenomena usually collected under the term ‘empathy’, which
need not involve such concern. Common to these are feelings that, as
one psychologist puts it, are “congruent with the other’s emotional
state or condition.”
Here it is the other’s standpoint that is salient, in
this case, the child’s as he faces the prospect of falling down the well.
Empathy consists in feeling what one imagines he feels, or perhaps
should feel (fear, say), or in some imagined copy of these feelings,
whether one comes thereby to be concerned for the child or not.
Empathy can be consistent with the indifference of pure observation
or even the cruelty of sadism. It all depends on why one is interested
in the other’s perspective.
Sympathy, on the other hand, is felt as
from the perspective of “one-caring.”
We now know a good deal about the psychology of empathy
and sympathy. Much of this was gleaned by earlier observers like
Philosophical Studies 89: 261–282, 1998.
1998 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.