Sympathy, Empathy, and Caring (Part 1 of 3): A Proper Understanding of Sympathy

Guest Post by Nina LaLumia

This is the first in a series of three posts following up on Jade’s post about false empathy. I’m aiming to make clear in my own way what’s sick about false empathy. I also propose a healthy alternative: what I call “lively sympathy.” The ultimate goal is to shed light on what it is that our social emotions should move us to do—to care authentically.

In this first post, I aim to communicate two things: first, some familiarity with the words we use to discuss this topic; second, a sketch of the theory offered by the philosopher David Hume.

A family of words and their history

The word ‘sympathy’ has its roots in Ancient Greek. The prefix sym- means “with” or “together,” as in sym-phony: a collection that makes sounds together, producing harmony or music. Pathy refers to suffering or undergoing something and being affected emotionally. Think of pathology: the study of things that people suffer: diseases. So at root, sympathy is being affected by the condition of another living being with an emotion that corresponds to that being’s condition—or at least to our perception of it. Use of this word with this meaning in English goes back as far as the 1600s. In 1757, Edmund Burke wrote: “Sympathy must be considered as a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in a good measure as he is affected.”

Everyone is familiar with the difference between being active and being passive: it’s the difference between your doing something and having something done to you. The nouns are ‘agent’ (a person who does something) and ‘patient’ (a person to whom something happens). There are also the abstract nouns ‘action’ and ‘passion’ (making something happen and having something happen to you). Similarly, we can affect things or be affected by them.

To fall in love is a passionate affair: something happens to you—something that can be wonderful and also painful. To feel affection for someone is also to be affected—to open the door and allow things to come in. If I open the door and allow myself to feel affection for Laura, Laura now matters to me in a new way. I’m now open (and vulnerable as well) to being affected emotionally by what Laura says and does, and to being affected by what happens to her. If something good happens in Laura’s life, I feel good about it; if something bad happens, I feel bad about it—it’s painful for me.

The philosophical theory of David Hume (1711-76)

In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume defines sympathy as the capacity to be affected emotionally by what happens to a person for whom we feel affection—both the good and the bad. Hume was studying the mind (doing psychology) from the modern scientific point of view. So for him, sympathy is not some magical affinity or “energy.” It happens through the subconscious observation of facial expressions, tone of voice, gesture and posture. In other words, sympathy happens through the medium of non-verbal communication. (I use the word ‘subconscious’ to suggest that these observations are below the surface of conscious awareness. We can notice them if we make the effort, but usually we don’t. Usually, we simply feel their effect.)

Sympathy of this kind is mainly interpersonal and face-to-face, and it requires that the two people involved already have a personal connection. But we can also feel sympathy through other media. (‘Media’ is the plural of ‘medium.’ We use the expression ‘the media’ to talk about the various ways or means by which we send messages.) Hume talks about the theatre; we could also talk about movies, works of fiction or poetry.

When you watch a scary movie, the normal thing to happen is that you yourself feel scared. Something is off (either with you or the movie) if you sit there unaffected, thinking something like, “Oh, if I were in that situation, I too would be scared,” or “I can understand why a person in that situation would feel fear.” There’s also something off if you don’t feel happy when Julia Roberts smiles. (If you don’t like Julia Roberts, think of someone whose smile you do find appealing.)

Whether it’s a good feeling or a bad one, happy or sad, we catch on to what someone else is feeling (or what they represent themselves as feeling) much more easily if we already have some sense of connection with him or her. And usually we develop a sense of connection with another person if they are appealing: if they appeal to us either because of their visible beauty or some beautiful character trait—their sense of humour, their courage, their loyalty as a friend, or something like that. So also, an artist has to create that sense of connection if we are to be moved by what happens to a fictional character in a movie or novel.

The last thing to be said here, so that we have a fair sketch of the whole picture, is that in general sympathy is not merely an emotional experience; it also moves us to do something. For example, adverts for charities that show children with dirty, tear-stained faces appeal to our sympathy and are designed so that we will be moved to donate some of our money. This kind of emotional response to the suffering of another living being is sometimes called “pity.”

This is usually what people nowadays think about when they hear the word ‘sympathy.’ But in the fuller picture that Hume offers, we can also be moved by good feelings. For example, if we feel affection for someone, we are usually moved to do good things for them: for example, to help them achieve their goals or to give them things they find pleasant.

The next two posts will discuss two aspects of sympathy in more detail. First, it is social and can be studied from a biological perspective—that is, it serves a function in relationships between people and in relationships between other social animals. Second, it is meant to move us—not only “move” us emotionally, but also literally move us to do something. What it should move us to do is to care authentically.


Read Part Two: CLICK HERE.

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