Becky wrote a great post called “The Impossibility of Empathy” in which she confronts the idea that empathy could be a sound framework for making moral decisions. I agree with the points she’s made, but I just want to take her idea and visit a few darker places with it, because learning about the downside of empathy has been a significant part of my life journey.
So empathy itself is neither bad or good, it’s made me a great wife, a good mom, an awesome caregiver. The ability to read other’s signals, to relate to their feelings, to extend grace and understanding to them, is sometimes called “emotional intelligence.” It’s a valuable skill to have and yet it is NOT a good foundation for our morality, in fact it can even become immoral and downright toxic very easily.
If you grow up with abuse or narcissistic parents, your empathy can get very fine tuned, something we call hypervigilance, where you compulsively read all the emotional undercurrents going on, so you can predict when the next shoe is going to drop. That’s a survival skill, a coping mechanism, but it can be exhausting, it takes a huge toll on you emotionally and physically, and it harms your future relationships. Narcissists especially, are experts at exploiting empathy, so they can really mess with your head and project their own burdens onto you. Taken to an extreme you will begin to feel their feelings for them so they don’t have to.
This leads us to co-dependence, especially in addiction situations, where the healthy adult’s broken empathy actually begins to fuel the disease. So adults will sometimes finance their grown children’s addictions, in effect, killing them. Murder by empathy, which may sound harsh, but intentional or not that is what is going on when you hand an addict money for drugs and alcohol. Those who are trapped in co-dependancy don’t see the nature of themselves, they genuinely care, so, so much, they think they are helping, being empathetic.
Battered women (and men too) often remain trapped in abusive situations due to broken empathy. They empathize and identify with their abuser so much, they have a hard time setting boundaries and escaping. They will spin excuses for the abuse until the cows come home, often identifying more with the abuser than they do with their own selves. Stockholm Syndrome is a famous example of that dynamic in play.
Animal hoarders often suffer from toxic empathy. In their quest to rescue animals, to prove how much they care, they can take on too much, actually creating a situation where the animals they have rescued are being harmed.
There are a myriad of human dysfunctions and downright toxic situations that arise when we allow empathy to become the foundation of our morality, to rule over us and determine our judgements, to overly influence our powers of discernment.
Empathy alone can be downright dangerous and immoral because very few of us can sort out our own feelings, what we want to see happen versus what is best for all involved. As people we have trouble seeing the chain reaction around the corner, how our own behavior is going to impact those around us and how far the ripples in the pond are going to travel.
A good example of empathy as a faulty basis for morality can be seen in the tale of the mink. Several years ago, some people were protesting against a mink farm and eventually decided to break in and free them of their captivity. The mink that didn’t freeze to death in a matter of hours, were soon devoured by coyotes and other predators. It was total carnage, a mass slaughter of the mink some people genuinely believed they were rescuing, an almost comical example of the limits of human compassion as a basis for wisdom.
So those who believe the golden rule is the entire foundation for our morality, are sadly mistaken. Also, if empathy were an adequate basis for morality, than human beings would all be living in harmony right now, happily singing kumbaya and “doing unto others.” The fact that we have never managed to do that in all of human history suggests that empathy alone is not an effective form of morality and that sin is a real thing in the world.
One more thing, since Becky’s post is a bit political, let me just say, I can totally empathize with both political candidates and their followers. I apologize for confessing that and horrifying anyone. I’ll spare you the quite elegant and empathetic spin I am capable of, but I just want to say, this fact doesn’t make me more moral or virtuous than anyone else, it means I live in a place of constant moral ambiguity, forever needing to be placed in the witless protection program….if I were not able to look up, and to seek the guidance and leadership that God provides.
Also, He is good, is He not? I’d be a dead squirrel if He had not plucked me out of the abyss of moral ambiguity and healed me from the potential harm of too much toxic empathy. God is good that way, always handing us beauty for our ashes.