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(Penman 2018)

Is Empathy Our Most Dangerous and Self-Indulgent Emotion?

by Danny Penman  
 January 31, 2018

"A good example is the way that people misunderstand (and feel) compassion and empathy. Empathy is the sharing of another person’s state of mind and their emotions whereas compassion actively seeks to relieve another’s suffering. Therein lies the crucial difference: compassion is active whereas empathy is passive. Empathy is, in some ways, a necessary precursor to compassion. It provides the motivational force to actually relieve another’s distress. But it can also be a ‘negative’ or even a coercive emotion because it is ethically neutral."

"People often confuse compassion with empathy. A rather brutal analogy highlights the difference: A torturer will put a gun to your head. An empathic torturer will put the gun to your child’s head. A compassionate one will put the gun down…. Same situation. Same tools. Only the interpretation of the raw emotional data differs."

  • compassion is better
  • empathy is passive
  • can also be a ‘negative'
  • a coercive emotion
  • a torturer uses empathy to be a better torturer
  •  empathy alone can be quite dangerous (and arguably a little self-indulgent). 
  • empathy carries with it a slight tinge of entertainment or even voyeurism
  • empathy can drag us into wars
  • making world’s problems worse with empathy. 

"I know it’s not very popular to point out the downsides of empathy (I’m not as monstrous as some of the commentators seem to think!). I’m trying to encourage compassion rather than the ‘emotional tourism’ that empathy often seems to become"

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