This is an argument that derives from my reading of Bregman. He proposes a binary distinction between empathy and compassion and argues that empathy is harmful.

I think there is a possibility of getting distracted here by arguments over definitions, so let us propose two ideal types.

  • ‘C’ is when you feel love or care towards the pain of another, are sympathetic, but don’t identify with the other’s suffering
  • ‘E’ is when you take on the pain of another, and feel it in yourself, the sympathy can be overwhelming or painful.

I would suggest that you are not going to do E if you have no C, as why suffer for nothing? Without C you may not respond.

I’d also suggest that you cannot do C, without some E, or you would have no idea what is happening with the other person, and thus not respond either.

This suggests there is what I will call a ‘sympathy continuum’ between E and C, which seems more realistic to me.

The problem with being close to the E end is that the E feeler may suffer uselessly, feel too drained to act, or privilege the person they are Eing towards (say putting them ahead of other people in similar predicaments, and thus ‘punishing’ others), or they may seek people to blame for the E’d person’s condition more than they might seek to help the other person. The problem with the C end, is that the C feeler can just feel good and soothed, and do nothing to help those in pain, because there is no impetus.

One argument I’m generally keen on, and is now modified, is that Ethics are generally based in, or originate from, the E/C continuum. Without feeling for others, concern for others, and understanding of what others are going through, we might not be that motivated beyond contractual, or exchange, ethics. That is “I do the bare minimum to let people know I’m ok”, or “if I do something for you, what’s in it for me?” Much ethics might be like this, but we certainly recognise that much ethics does go beyond this.

What the continuum idea suggests is that while we may start with pure E or C we need to seek an appropriate place in the C-E continuum, depending on what is happening. So we start off with feeling but decide what to do with it, and where to end up, and that is the first step towards action – even if that action is to do nothing.

Ethics as usual becomes a decision, but the first decision is how one reacts to the other person on the sympathy continuum.