Ethical empathy

There are some philosophers who think that empathy is central to all work in ethics; that without empathy, one will inadvertently harm others. Iris Murdoch is one such philosoher; Simone Weil is another. Both emphasize the necessity of developing one's capacity for attention as basic to developing ethical empathy.

In my own work, I have concluded that there are stages of empathy ranging from no empathy through the 3rd degree of empathy.

  1. Zero empathy - the decision maker may follow moral rules or work for good conesquences but s/he has no empathetic understanding of the Other.
  2. First degree of empathy - the decision maker can not identify with the Other but treats this Other as s/he would a beloved relative or friend.
  3. Second degree of empathy - the decision maker does identify with the Other and treats the Other as s/he, the decision maker, would like to be treated. Some would see this as a common interpretation of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as one would have others do unto oneself.
  4. Third degree of empathy - the decision maker has developed her/his capacity for attention to the degree that the decision maker can attend to the Other so fully as to see what the situation means to the Other...and treats the Other in accord with the Other's meaning and desire.

    In health care it is important to develop empathy if we want to do what is right or good for the Other, as the Other sees his or her situation. There are not only cultural differences but personal difference among people. One of the best ways to develop the skills necessary for empathy is to read first person accounts and fictional literature by or about persons with illnesses or health care problems because such reading requires empathetic understanding - or we grow too bored to continue. New York Universitiy offers a web site with many links to such on line sources.

    One question that is helpful to health care practitioners who are trying to develop empathy for a client or patient or colleague is:
    What are you going through?

    The legend of the Grail says that it is guarded by a King with a fearful wound and the Grail will be given to the person who comes upon this wounded King and asks him, "What are you going through?". If you want to develop empathy for your clients, try asking this question of some of them and then LISTEN to their answers with the respect that their honest sharing deserves. If you can listen and imagine what it is like to experience what they describe you will be an empathetic professional.