Against Empathy

masksThe possibility of empathy is a western-buddhist dogma. Empathy, together with its near relative, compassion, may even be considered a necessary axiom of contemporary x-buddhist belief, whether in a secular, crypto, or traditional inflection. For, without the possibility of empathy and compassion, x-buddhism loses its ethical footing, its prime rationale for practice, and its very impetus toward the pro-social utopian. In this post, I’d like to present a paper that challenges the possibility of an activity that resembles our folk notions of “empathy.” The article, by the German thinker Jan Slaby, is aptly title “Against Empathy” (links below).

Before I do, I want to set the stage a bit by giving an indication of how these terms function in contemporary x-buddhist discourse. We can glean the axiomatic/dogmatic nature of the x-buddhist belief in empathy-compassion from the Tricycle article entitled “Empathy or Compassion? Reflections on the Compassion Meditation Conference.” This article is a report on a now familiar scene, where, “scholars and researchers in psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience congregated alongside His Holiness the Dalai Lama for,” in this case, Emory University’s 2010 conference on “compassion meditation.” The question at hand was not “what do we mean by ‘empathy’ and ‘compassion’?” The conference presupposed folk meanings for the terms; namely, that they refer to feeling or, as the report puts it, “resonating” with, another’s pain.

The issue at hand was thus how empathy and compassion might differ from and complement one another. Go-to x-buddhist compassion expert, Matthieu Ricard, “western monk, scientist, and author,” explained the importance of resolving this matter by:

considering how the experience of empathy without compassion would induce incredibly unpleasant, even crippling, states.  The following day, Matthieu explained the testing of this hypothesis in the lab, where seasoned meditators were instructed to resonate with others’ suffering without generating compassion or performing cognitive reappraisal until the practice became utterly unbearable—and it did.  When the meditators in the lab then generated compassion, their experience transformed completely.  These meditators had trained extensively in generating compassion in the face of suffering almost immediately, but teasing apart empathy and compassion in the lab proved to be extremely illuminating.

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson then “presented findings suggesting that empathy and compassion correlate to differing neural states:”

He found that the circuits engaged by compassion training partially overlap with those activated during empathy, but differ in that they also involve the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which he suggested might play a role in expressing and enacting aspiration.  Such would accord with the Buddhist definition of compassion—the aspiration that others be free from suffering.

So, one conclusion of the conference was that:

Empathy that resonates with another’s painful condition causes the empathizer to experience that same suffering, which can easily overwhelm. Training in compassion can transform the same empathy that in itself is debilitating into a helpful force.

Of course, we learn nothing about what empathy and compassion are from any of this. We are merely offered a circular argument: when certain subjects “resonated” with others’ “suffering,” thereby experiencing the “same” suffering, certain things occurred in the area of their brains that “might” have something to do with something called “aspiration” to “resonate” with and eliminate another’s pain. The burning question of just what these people were actually doing as they “resonated” is left unasked. Continue reading “Against Empathy”