Saturday, January 13, 2018


350. Žižek and Devisch: Understanding empathy

In my work on trust, also in this blog, I argued that empathy is needed for trust (items 21, 171, 319). Now I see empathy criticized, by Žižek and Ignaas Devisch[i], among others. Am I mistaken?

Žižek criticizes empathy in two ways. First, he claims that the idea that we can fully understand people is an illusion: we cannot even clearly know ourselves. It is a myth that psycho-analysis unearths, clears up, and cures trauma’s, repressions and tensions that lurk in the dark of the self. The best psycho-analysis can do is to help a patient to learn to live with them. The self remains an abyss, as Žižek calls it.

Žižek and Devisch claim that empathy undermines justice, because it is partial, personal and prejudiced by feeling and impulse, while justice should be universal, applied to all anonymously, indifferently, based on reason. Worse: empathy can be and is being used to divert attention from a crumbling of justice.

Also, Empathy requires effort and personal contact, which have their limits, and can apply only to small numbers. There lies the lie of having hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’.  

According to Devisch, empathy settles on kin or the loved, or beyond that on the personalized, innocent and cuddly (babies, children and Panda bears are best), not on the bad and ugly, and not on the anonymous. Charities use that, appealing for donations with pictures of a drowned boy on the beach, or a crying girl that will not get the medicine she needs unless you contribute. 

Currently in the Netherlands, under the motto of ‘participative society’, austerity is imposed on different forms of care, of the ill, old, lonely, mentally ill (now called ‘confused’), lost, and destitute. They are thrown back on the mercy of empathy from family, friends, or neighbours.

When empathy turns into benevolence, it can oblige the recipient to be thankful and submissive, not to blemish the moral superiority of the giver with ungrateful criticism. Victims should behave. Nietzsche showed how benevolence and pity become an exercise of the will to power.

I agree with all this. However, there is an underlying misunderstanding. Devisch defines empathy not only as understanding how another thinks or feels, but also to ‘feel along’. That comes close to what I call ‘identification’. As I put it in my work on trust, empathy is understanding what ‘makes someone tick’, while identification is ‘ticking in the same way’, with a feeling of sharing a destiny.

The misunderstanding is that empathy is always, by definition, benevolent, loving, and helping. It is not. Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, identification or altruism. It does not demand benevolent help.

We all agree that it is good to ‘know thy enemy’. That is empathy. It is needed to rationally assess reliability, or trustworthiness, and may lead to the conclusion they are lacking, and then it produces distancing, not approach, prudence that may lead to distrust.

It does not mean having sympathy for your enemy. But it does go further than understanding how he thinks and feels. It also includes understanding the contingencies that affect his conduct: temptations and  pressures that make him do things even which he might not himself want. It requires openness and receptiveness, extending the benefit of the doubt, engaging in ‘voice’. But doubt can go two ways: acceptance, even identification, but also refusal and ‘exit’.  

A psychopath usually has great cognitive empathy, with an acute understanding of hidden fears, hang-ups, weaknesses, or longings of his victims, to harm them more effectively.

It remains true that empathy, of whatever form, is necessarily selective, reserved only for a limited number of personal relationships. It cannot replace justice but can supplement it.

I haven’t yet adequately answered Žižek’s claim that we cannot fully understand the other. Indeed: not fully, but surely to some extent we can, with a certain ability and experience. I grant that the self remains an abyss. David Hume already recognized that there is no single, univocal, stable identity lying there to be found.

Here, think also of the increasingly accepted (though not new) insight that there is limited free will: our choices are largely made subconsciously, and the reasons we give for actions are largely rationalizations post hoc.    

In my studies of trust I deal with this as follows. The actions of others are not just risky, but uncertain. With risk you don’t know what will happen but you do know what can happen, so you can attach probabilities, but with uncertainty you don’t even know that. Actions of people regularly go beyond what one would have considered possible. Well-behaved husbands suddenly kill atrociously. A friendly neighbour kicks your dog. Since uncertainty is not calculable, trust becomes a leap of faith.

In the end, there still is what I now will call ‘the problem of Levinas’. Empathy may lead to identification, in awe of the ‘visage’ of the other, in a personal relationship.[ii] But how do we go from there to justice, as a universal that applies to all anonymous others, and how in that can the personal, the empathic, survive? Levinas recognized this problem, as I discussed in item 224 of this blog.

I will not attempt to answer that question here, but my hunch is as follows. As Hegel recognized, and in his footsteps Žižek, the universal allows, indeed needs, its differentiation in particulars. That then must also apply to justice.

A final question is this. Is empathy a virtue? In preceding items in this blog I went back to the classical ‘cardinal’ virtues of reason, courage, moderation and justice. Empathy should be virtuous in that sense. It should be thinking, prudent, using reason for assessing trustworthiness. It should be courageous, in accepting the uncertainty of conduct. It should engage in moderation, in not demanding the impossible, of oneself and the other, accepting an ineliminable distance between self and other. And, as indicated above, it should not break down justice.   


[i] Ignaas Devisch, 2017, Het empathisch teveel; Op naar een werkbare onverschilligheid,(Empathic excess; Onwards to a workable indifference), Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij.  
[ii] Note, however, that Levinas resisted identification: self and other do not merge but remain radically distinct.