Good Essay On A Synthesis Of Empathy
Empathy undergirds the epistemological basis of universal morality. Psychologists and neurobiologists have identified two types of empathy: “affective empathy,” or the feelings and sensations of an individual in response to another person’s emotions, which often manifests itself in the emulation of perceived emotions; and “cognitive empathy,” which simply refers to the capacity to identify, internalize, and understand the emotions of others. As the basis of human morality and an undergirding principle of human action, empathy describes a wide range of actions, experiences and emotions that illicit certain responses as a result of an intrinsic proclivity towards alleviating and diminishing the perceived suffering of others. An examination of the debates taking place in public discourses today underscores the nuances of the subject and how it is perceived from a psychological approach.
Empathy has deep roots in humans’ evolutionary history and in human bodies and brains as well as in various epistemological discourses during the age of science and technological advances. Introduced in English from German by psychologist Edward Titchener in 1909, the term “empathy”—although initially misspelled as “enpathy”—translates to “feeling to” and has been understood amongst the German intelligentsia as a significant category of epistemological aesthetics. Thomas Lipps argues that Empathy does not have a long history as an object of philosophical analysis, it is unequivocal that empathy is understood as the main foundation for recognizing humans as cognitive creatures (Lipps 35). Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, various philosophers grafted sentiments related to empathy into their epistemologies, as they informally wrote about the human capacity to feel in works of art, poetry, and treatises about nature. This ability to feel figured prominently in the Romantic Movement, as it functioned as an essential corrective against the more technical attitudes that undergirded modern science that objectified nature and eschewed all underlying spiritual or animating realities. Nonetheless, philosophers merely articulated the human ability to feel and did not regard it as a worthy topic of sustained inquiry and philosophical analysis until Lipps contended that the concept of empathy was central to the aesthetic experiences of human beings.
Humans perceive others as cognitive beings because empathy manifests itself as a phenomenon of “inner imitation” in which the mind imitates the experiences or cognitive activities of another individual predicated on an intrinsic disposition to mimic (Lipps 49). Thus, philosophers deployed psychological mechanisms and contexts of empathy in order to expound on the phenomenological basis of how human beings perceive the actions and aesthetics of other humans and objects. Vicarious imitation and simulation as an innate characteristic of the human condition thus emerged as formative component of the concept of empathy. As such, Perri Klass analyzes the human capacity to perceive the distress of others that elicits an emotional response in the individual represents a crucial component of what psychologists call “pro-social behavior,” or actions that are utilitarian in nature at the micro and macro levels. Children develop this ability to discern and react to the perceived pain and stress of others at a young age (Klass).
This view of empathy is far different from the older concept of sympathy that is so prominent in Victorian discourses. Psychologists draw connections between the concepts of sympathy and empathy, although they conclude that while the two concepts are related to one another, they do not refer to the same emotion (Klass). Claude Fischer the concept of sympathy, which offers a cogent analysis of sympathy as a corollary to empathy. Americans are inundated with advertisements and pleas vis-à-vis social media and television advertisements to help those in need around the globe. Such humanitarian appeals do not always meet with success, as sympathy is not a biological emotion that inheres human nature. Rather, such appeals succeed within the context of modernity because humans have been conditioned to sympathize and show compassion towards the suffering of others. This humanitarian sensibility that has developed within the past few centuries foment such seemingly innate capacity to feel (Bloom). Scholars studying human emotions and the construction of human’s feelings have found that prior to the nineteenth century, sympathy was not commonly witnessed because people cared more about their own exigent circumstances. However, scholars point to the cultural changes that took place in the West as an explanation for why sympathy proliferated beginning in the 1800s (Fischer).
Although some studies indicate that empathy has a genetic basis or degree of heritability, recent studies have shown that people can restrict or amplify their natural empathetic capacities. Nonetheless, biologists embrace a bottom-up approach to studying empathy based on the assumption of the continuity between human and animal, past and present, and between primitive mammals and humans (Klass). Sympathy is considered one of the strongest human instincts that has increased vis-à-vis Darwin’s concept of natural selection (Keltner). Evolutionary history reveals that empathy, like sympathy, was a trait evolved from others species as well as in humans within the context of parental care that all mammal species possess. Human infants signal their emotional state through various emotions such as crying or laughing. Such interactions retain survival currency for both humans as well as other primates such as the chimpanzee. The example of the deaf chimpanzee Krom illustrates that there are intrinsic mechanisms that enable a mother to understand and respond to the needs of their children in order to survive. Although Krom demonstrated a positive interest in her newborns, her deafness hindered her from properly taking care of her babies because she could not hear their cries when they were hungry or in distress. For over 180 million years of evolution, females who could effectively response to the needs of their progeny reproduced far more than those that were distant and cold (de Waal). Thus, the bottom-up approach to studying empathy focuses on the simplest and most rudimentary forms of empathy and how those forms combined with cognitive processes which resulted in far complex manifestations of empathy within the realm of biology.
Some psychologists, however, have engaged in a dialogue that assesses whether empathy is a positive or a detrimental human ability. One group asserts that empathy can sometimes be so intense in an individual that it backfires and exacerbates personal distress, resulting in “a desire to avoid the source of pain” (Klass). As such, the complexities of pro-social behavior is quite varied and includes a heightened sense of self that enables an individual to better understand their own feelings and identity, the capacity to perceive the distress and or pain of others, and homeostasis capabilities that can transform personal distress into outright hatred as well as the cognition that there is social and cultural currency in aiding others in distress (Klass). Other psychologists including Ava Brunstein posit that empathy requires humans to be self-centered, which is seemingly a paradoxical assertion. She points to a litany of studies that illuminate how egocentric humans really are, thereby charging that laymen and scholars alike have deluded themselves when they argue otherwise (Brunstein). Paul Bloom further underscores the negative aspects of empathy as it relates to the notion of sympathy. He contends that “If you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide,” yet clarifies that he is not against kindness and compassion (Bloom). Obama, Bloom reiterates, time and again stresses the value of empathy as a moral good and as a mechanism to dismantle barriers and dictate social poicy. However, Bloom argues, most people tacitly agree that empathy carries with it a litany of benefits that do not require advocates to justify it. Doing so according to Bloom is a huge mistake because of the intrinsic biases of empathy towards “attractive people” (Bloom). Only when empathy is negated from public decision-making will society become more moral and just.
Such negative perceptions of empathy however remain in the minority within the corpus of literature on the concept, as it connotes a far more positive rather than pejorative image within mainstream society. Dacher Kelter argues that compassion and empathy cultivates happiness in individuals. The “heart of reverence” refers to one’s ability to recognize that he or she belongs to an entity that is sacred and far larger than the individual human. This concept glues together human communities, a notion that has persisted since antiquity in Greek society. Indeed, empathy and compassion undergird the ability of humans to achieve justice. This camp functions on the underlying belief that “reverence and gratitude are the engines of healthy communities” (Kelter). The deep-seated capacity and propensity of humans to feel other people’s emotions has persisted throughout their evolutionary history. Many people conflate empathy with sympathy and/or compassion, yet they struggle to differentiate between the interrelated yet different concepts. Humans are innately empathetic creatures. While some individuals amplify their empathy through their actions, others restrict it as a result of the mechanistic tendencies that modernity has cultivated. While empathy can be applied in various arenas, it is unequivocal that it subverts and transcends binary thinking, thereby blurring the lines between self/Other, center/periphery, and hegemonic/subaltern. The power of empathy as an intrinsic human quality lies in its ability to erase artificial constructions of difference.
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