Empathy isn’t enough. Feeling your pain isn’t enough. I have to do something about it.
“He never did anything to me, it’s true,
but I once played a most shameless nasty trick on him,
and the moment I did it, I immediately hated him for it.”
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Hanging around with kids last summer made at least two things clear to me:
- Children over the age of ten learn far more from each other than they do from us. Jean-Jacques Rousseau made precisely this point long ago in Émile (1762): “The lessons pupils get from one another in the schoolyard are a hundred times more useful to them than everything they will ever be taught in class.”
- The things you learn about human nature from watching kids play and fight—in a largely unstructured environment—are a hundred times more useful than everything you will ever be taught in a philosophy class. The following episode is a case in point: Two kids were playing a makeshift version of King of the Castle outside of Lionel-Groulx metro station whilst we all waited for the 485 bus. Let’s call them Tom and Jerry.
Tom got a little too rough and pushed Jerry off the garbage can. Jerry landed face first on the pavement. Although he wasn’t seriously hurt, Jerry was winded and—quite understandably— upset. Tom’s face fell. Clearly it was an accident. He didn’t mean to hurt him. Indeed, Tom winced and recoiled immediately—reflexively—as if he were the one in pain—viz., he had a knee-jerk empathetic response. Seeing Jerry in pain caused him pain. My former student Lee Mellor would say that this is definitive proof of at least one thing: Tom is not a sociopath.
In Cold North Killers: Canadian Serial Murder (2012), Mellor maintains that sociopaths lack the moral emotions that give rise to knee-jerk empathetic responses. But he also maintains—in his more recent book, Rampage: Canadian Mass Murder and Spree Killing(2013)—that most murderers aren’t sociopaths, and most sociopaths aren’t violent. This is an important point, which seems too often forgotten in the midst of our current love affair with empathy.
Books like The Age of Empathy (by Frans de Waal) and The Empathic Civilization (by Jeremy Rifkin) have led many within the chattering classes to conclude that a dramatic increase in our capacity for empathy would—necessarily, and as a matter of course—lead to a dramatic decrease in violence, suffering, and strife. If we could all just say—in the immortal words of Bill Clinton—“I feel your pain” (and mean it), we could escape the nightmare of history and enter the promised land of the future: a land that flows with peace, prosperity, and positivity.
Tom’s response to Jerry’s pain—or, more specifically, to his own empathetic response to Jerry’s pain—makes me deeply suspicious of this kind of millenarian optimism. As I said, Tom isn’t a psycho. Not at all. He’s a totally normal kid. And, as such, his friend’s pain caused him visceral discomfort. But it didn’t cause him to apologize or try to make amends. All to the contrary, he got mad at him. It’s not a pretty response, but, as Dostoevsky well knew, it’s an altogether human response. Most of us, I’ll wager, have experienced it more times than we’d like to admit.
Being a good person consistently without a well-developed capacity for empathy is, I imagine, sort of like trying to navigate without a compass: possible but extremely difficult. As such, Rifkin and de Waal are right to highlight its importance. But empathy isn’t enough.
Feeling your pain isn’t enough. I have to do something about it.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
p.s. Tom apologized to Jerry on the 485 bus and all was forgotten. Truly forgotten. If only adults could forgive and forget as flawlessly as children do (especially boys).
Originally published at Committing Sociology. Reprinted with permission.
Photo courtesy of author.