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Empathy is missing in Society Today

Ethics Requires Us to Feel What Others Feel Before Acting

Empathy can be defined as vicariously perceiving or feeling the experiences and emotions of another person. It incorporates feelings of caring, concern, and consideration as integral to the ethical value of empathy. The following well-known expression describes a perspective on empathy:  'Walk a mile in my shoes'. This means that you should try to understand someone before criticizing them. In other words an empathetic person tries to feel what another is feeling, rather than feeling for that person – which is sympathy.  

I’ve been thinking about empathy lately because I’ve become fed up with the political discourse in our country that has been exacerbated by the current presidential cycle. I sometimes listen to what pundits say about the other side on both the left and the right. Each side believes they have a monopoly on the direction the nation should take during the next four years. Each side believes it has the best interests of the country at heart. Each side believes the other side is made up of creepy people with scary ideas. As with most issues, each side is somewhat right and mostly wrong. I don’t object to what they say, but I do object to how it is said. The debate takes place in a derisive manner that is designed to tear down the other side.

The candidates themselves are no better. We hear about ‘vulture capitalism’ and ‘socialism,’ -- a loaded word at best. The hyper-critical comments fly fast and furious. Rather than try to understand the opponent, Obama and Romney look for ways to criticize their opponent. This doesn’t help the country. This doesn’t suggest solutions to our problems. All it is designed to do is make the other person look bad. What kind of ethics is this? Label it any way that you want; the bottom line is the candidates care more about their perceived image than doing the right thing for the nation. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising given the explosion in realty television the past ten years or so. Perhaps it is time for a new show – ‘Politics Gone Wild’.

On a grander scale, I’ve always believed men and women are wired differently with respect to empathy. The ‘ethics of care’ has been associated with women. I don’t know that I would go so far as to say women have cornered the market on empathy. On the other hand, I’ve read the seminal book by John Gray, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Gray asserts that men complain that if they try to offer solutions to problems that women want to talk about, women do not necessarily want to find solutions but only want to talk about these problems. In other words, they want empathy, caring, and consideration for their feelings. This reminds me of one of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People described by Stephen R. Covey: ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’. It would great if both Obama and Romney read this book before political debates. It might raise the level of discourse to never-before-seen heights.

I recall a dialogue in a book I once read but, unfortunately, I can’t remember who said it. It is apropos to the discussion and, I believe, a guiding thought to incorporate empathy and, indeed, ethical behavior in all that we do; in all that we say; and in all that we feel:

Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 29, 2012