What are the situations that require empathy

Compassion and crueltyThe dark side of empathy

Police officers using rubber bullets and batons to prevent people from voting - these are recordings of the sometimes bloody clashes during the Catalan independence referendum at the beginning of October; Images that undoubtedly trigger empathy. But after these incidents, pity came only from those who already sympathized with the protesters. Internationally, the empathy was largely absent, because for many the Catalans are not discriminated but a privileged minority with excessive demands and an aggressive demeanor.

Empathy as a fire accelerator of political conflicts

The compassion that the television images aroused in some did not help to resolve the conflict. On the contrary: it fueled him and hardened the fronts. Empathy as a fire accelerator of conflicts - that contradicts the common image of this emotional faculty. After all, empathy is an elementary basis for moral action: if you are able to empathize with others, the common assumption is that you are automatically doing the right thing. So does the positive image we have of empathy need to be corrected? Do we expect too much of the ability to empathize with others? At least that's what Fritz Breithaupt thinks. He teaches German, comparative literature and cognitive science at Indiana University in Bloomington, USA:

"Most people associate great hope with empathy. If only we had more empathy, then humanity would be better off. Barack Obama put it roughly like this: The biggest problem of our time would be the empathy deficit of the younger generation. And if so if we could change that, then we would make the world a better place. "

Empathy becomes a maxim in life

In addition to the complaint about the alleged lack of empathy of individual or entire groups, there is often a demand for more empathy in all areas of life, privately, professionally or in politics. Books about empathy become bestsellers, empathy coaching and mindfulness seminars are offered as professional development. Empathy has become a catchphrase, almost a maxim of the present. And it is precisely because of this inflationary usage that the term is often used blurred. This is also criticized by Hans-Ludwig Kröber, professor emeritus for forensic psychiatry at the Free University of Berlin:

"The problem is that the meaning of the term empathy has been expanded very massively, actually for everything that is somehow possible in interpersonal, good, emotional relationships. And so you always need a question when someone says empathy what they say This actually means. And that can be expressed in German in very different words. So compassion is something other than empathy. Empathy is something other than caring. "

Kröber also observes this inflationary use of the term "empathy" in his own everyday work. As a forensic psychiatrist, he writes court reports on accused offenders. In recent years, criminals have often been certified as having a fundamental lack of empathy. Kröber laments this tendency. Of course, a criminal does not act empathically at the moment of the act of violence, but that says little about his general ability to empathize.

"We also have a lot of prisoners, including convicts, who afterwards prove to be completely orderly and cooperative and helpful and friendly and also" empathetic "in prison, but who need this framework that stabilizes them and organizes them and those alone, outside In the wild you just can't come to terms with things and then suddenly do things again that are directed against others. So this assessment, these generalizations, from an act, they are certainly questionable in many cases. "

The human being, a hyper-empathic being

Fritz Breithaupt also insists in his book "The Dark Pages of Empathy" from 2017 that people are never completely devoid of empathy. Even sociopaths or autistic people who show clear deficiencies in empathy are nevertheless capable of empathy to an astonishing extent. This shows how pronounced it is - this ability to experience the life situation of others, to empathize with them and to think along with them. Even more: According to Breithaupt, people are initially hyper-empathic beings, they tend to be empathetic. This is shown by the fact that you can feel empathy even for fictional characters or long-dead people:

"People have this tremendous ability to empathize, in many ways. But that's why we're a little cautious. Most of us learn to control it, to hold back. One of the great moments when we are outwitted and let ourselves be carried away to empathy , consists in taking sides. We humans can actually judge no different from other people. And when we see a conflict between two people or two parties - that can also be sport - then we jump very quickly, maybe consciously, maybe not consciously to one side or the other. "

For Breithaupt, taking sides is a kind of "suction cup" or "loophole" that makes people feel empathy that is otherwise blocked. This mechanism does not always have to have negative consequences in everyday life. But especially in political conflicts, taking sides with empathy can lead to a dwindling understanding of the other side because one identifies to a greater extent with the suffering of one's own group.

"One can only hope now that there will not be developments in Catalonia in which the people watch how their side in a conflict is defeated, how it is suppressed. And because they refer to the party, because they relate getting more and more involved with them, they can come to the fact that they hold up this one perspective more and more and then develop the sensations and feelings that fit this side.If you consider your side to be suppressed, then it can turn into despair at first and then finally hatred and anger. And that can indeed produce terrorists. "

Empathy tends to think in black and white

Thiemo Breyer also shares the view that empathy can polarize. He is a philosopher and has a junior professor at the University of Cologne and a visiting professor at the University of Mainz. He criticizes the tendency to see them as a kind of "savior", especially when it comes to solving global problems. According to Breyer, the results of evolutionary biology already speak against this. The ability to compassion and pity initially only developed within small groups, with the aim of helping one another because one is dependent on one another. Empathy across group boundaries was initially not intended. Obviously not much has changed in the present.

Breyer: "One must at least admit that empathy is regulated by different parameters that are also examined in social psychology, such as similarity and dissimilarity. And it has been suggested in numerous psychological and sociological studies that empathy towards members of one's own Group is more pronounced. "

It is one of the essential limits of empathy: it is simply not always used in relation to strangers and those who think differently. In other words, it may not be strong enough to effectively mask prejudice and discrimination. Rather, empathy is itself a plaything of various psychological mechanisms. Despite these limits, Breyer insists on the potential of the ability to empathize with others: in the best case, it can generate understanding across cultural and national borders and motivate people to behave socially. It is the ideal case of human empathy: empathy and compassion in spite of spatial distance, in spite of linguistic and cultural barriers. But does empathy always lead to useful help on a global scale, for example in the context of development projects? Hans Ludwig Kröber doubts that:

"Overall, it is natural in all of this primarily journalistic picture production that through such images of suffering - the starving Biafra children, you can actually trace it back as far as you want - that there is then compassion from a safe distance, that you think something has to be done be done and I support this cause regardless of the examination of further circumstances and independent of the examination of real political possibilities. So what is actually political is actually hidden behind this pictorial cry for help: Do something for me! "

Does empathy automatically lead to the role of victim?

Kröber's argument is reminiscent of the ongoing criticism of Western development policy, as it was recently put forward by the economist Dambisa Moyo from Zambia. Moyo calls for an end to state development aid for Africa, since in her eyes it suppresses entrepreneurship, creates dependencies, promotes corruption and in some cases even supports repressive regimes. Instead, they favor a dismantling of tariffs and trade agreements on an equal footing. A critical examination of these arguments obviously requires skills other than empathy. The literary scholar Fritz Breithaupt also emphasizes that empathy alone cannot always lead to lasting help. On the contrary, it can be counterproductive, for example when others are pressed into the role of the victim by one's own pity and are kept at a certain level of pity.

Breithaupt: "What is often misunderstood in my opinion is that empathy is very important and really shapes us as humans. But that empathy is only good for those who feel empathy. And not necessarily for those who feel empathy You really have to let that melt on your tongue, the thought that empathy is good and beautiful for those who feel empathy, because those who have empathy: They live richer. They live more as a life, he can participate in others. That is very enriching. "

And quite the normal case for Breithaupt. But there are countless exceptions, for example when empathy is used to satisfy a specific need. In the case of some development aid, Breithaupt questions whether the victims are really only being dealt with out of empathy. In many cases, according to Breithaupt's thesis, empathy with people in need does not arise suddenly, but via detours, for example by imagining a rescuing helper who can change something. You then see yourself in the role of the savior and look through his eyes at the victims of drought, wars or environmental disasters. Empathy can also be linked to the need to put yourself in the right light. But when this mechanism works cannot always be clearly decided. The fact that empathy primarily benefits those who feel it can also be proven by many other examples.

Empathy as the selfish satisfaction of needs

Kröber: "Yes, I mean, it is assumed that empathy always comes down to thinking for the good of the other. But that is not provided at all, at least in cognitive empathy. In cognitive empathy I just need to know what the other is up to and what they want and how they work. And that may help me to manipulate them, to influence them - be it when flirting, because one has a certain goal in mind, or with the business partner that I become Deal wants to move or the soccer coach from the other side and his thoughts on my thoughts. And right up to the psychopath who has a good feeling for how a victim works, how he manages to create fear in the other. "

Sadism is ultimately one of the most extreme examples of anti-social behavior through empathy. And according to Fritz Breithaupt, this is not the norm. When these examples are addressed, it is not to discredit empathy per se, but above all to correct the one-sided positive image. Fritz Breithaupt even takes the view that people - despite all the downsides - might even need more empathy than before. Nevertheless, this also raises the question of how to deal with these limits of empathy. Which term should one use instead of empathy in order to achieve positive social behavior? Thiemo Breyer:

"There are representatives like the psychologist Paul Bloom, who in his current book" Against Empathy "advocates the thesis: If we want to act morally well, we shouldn't rely on feelings of empathy - something like pity, compassion - and ourselves Let it guide us to a certain action, whether pro- or antisocial, but rather we should establish something like rational compassion, not feelings, but reason should guide us in order to be able to offer other people targeted and as skilful help as possible is morally valuable. "

Rational compassion instead of empathy

But even terms such as "rational compassion" do not solve a fundamental problem of empathy: Although empathy actually describes an individual ability, the term is often used to describe political processes. The term empathy is symptomatic of the age of post-politics, which began after the end of the Cold War: Instead of great social narratives, the emphasis was now on the power of the individual and the free play of the economy. Instead of solidarity, empathy was used to motivate people to act socially. But the question remains whether the individualistic term empathy is still wisely chosen in the face of right-wing populism, terror, filter bubbles and growing divisions in Western societies. Perhaps a supplement is needed that adds a political dimension to the individualistic perspective of empathy and does not just appeal to reason. Perhaps, according to Breithaupt's suggestion, empathy lacks a "we" that goes far beyond the individual and also the own group membership:

"The important thing about us, similar to solidarity, is first of all that the people you are observing, who have problems, are perhaps first in the victim role, that you don't want to keep them on this role, that they are the Sufferers who are victims. Rather: on a level of equality, similarity, solidarity or the open we. And here I find the open we perhaps one step more important, that we cultivate feelings of we. "