Home > Animals, Books, Language > Empathy, Compassion, Sympathy, Pity

Empathy, Compassion, Sympathy, Pity

September 29, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


That’s a mouthful. So here’s a question. How do you use these words? Do you carefully distinguish different shades of meaning? If so, can you express what these shades are, or can you give examples of each that delineate these shades?

Language is an especially powerful tool when we can wield it to separate closely-related concepts. Of course, this only works if the community within which we employ the tool has a shared understanding of the subtle differences at stake and the words that articulate the differences. I always wonder, when I read about wine, if there really is a community that uses the same words to distinguish among the subtle flavors that their trained palates allow them to recognize. My point is, each wine sophisticate may well be noticing a certain set of flavors, and may well employ a rich vocabulary in a consistent way to describe these differences. But are these sophisticates really talking to each other? Do they make the same distinctions and express them with the same words? Beats me. Same goes for colors. Mauve? Ecru? If it weren’t for crosswords, I wouldn’t use these words at all. Vermilion. Ochre. And on and on. So many words. But is there actually a community of users that shares an understanding of how the words match up with actual colors?

Which brings me to the title of this post. These four words can’t mean the same thing. If they did, that would be a wasted opportunity. Better to reserve each one for its own purpose. But do we agree on what these purposes are?

This question arose when I read the review by Andrew Stark in today’s Wall Street Journal of Frans de Waal’s new book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.

de Waal is the famed primatologist at Emory University. The book, as described at its website, “examines how empathy comes naturally to a great variety of animals, including humans. By studying social behaviors in animals, such as bonding, the herd instinct, the forming of trusting alliances, expressions of consolation, and conflict resolution, Frans de Waal demonstrates that animals–and humans–are ‘preprogrammed to reach out.’ He has found that chimpanzees care for mates that are wounded by leopards, elephants offer ‘reassuring rumbles’ to youngsters in distress, and dolphins support sick companions near the water’s surface to prevent them from drowning. From day one humans have innate sensitivities to faces, bodies, and voices; we’ve been designed to feel for one another.”

In his review, Stark argues that de Waal overstates the similarities between humans and other mammals. His argument hinges on a distinction between the words of this post’s title:

Mr. de Waal at times blurs the distinction between empathy and other, more evolved, reactions to the distress of others.

Imagine that your old college roommate recently lost $50 million with Bernie Madoff. If you happen to be a poet who has renounced all material pursuits, you might have difficulty summoning up much empathy. To feel what your friend feels, you’re going to have to bring to mind something that causes you as much pain as the lost millions causes him: say, having the poem you’ve been working on for 10 years rejected by the New Yorker. There is a word for this strategy, whereby we feel what another feels not by imagining ourselves in his situation but by imagining ourselves in circumstances that might produce his feelings. The word is “compassion.”

… compassion expands humankind’s emotional reach. Kuni, the bonobo ape that spread a wounded bird’s wings and sent it flying, might have had a rudimentary cognitive sense of what birds are supposed to do. But there is no reason to believe that Kuni is imagining how she would feel if she were no longer able to swing from trees.

Empathy and compassion do share one quality, though. In both cases, what we are responding to are our own painful feelings or difficult situations, which happen to have been brought to mind by our exposure to those of another. But human beings are also capable of sympathy and pity—two states of mind that are considerably more impressive and, for the purposes of comparing humans and other primates, more distinctive.

When we sympathize with someone anguishing over the loss of $50 million, we do not feel his pain as if it were our own. Yet we are still able to summon up a response of concern and care. Pity is like sympathy, except that it responds not to the distraught feelings of someone else but to his dire situation. Thus we can pity someone who, though in a dire situation, is too deluded to feel distraught (which is why Mr. T said “I pity the fool,” not “I sympathize with the fool”). With pity, too, we are capable of responding with care and concern without having to imagine ourselves in similar circumstances.

Mr. de Waal offers no conclusive argument that animals are capable of shifting their focus in such a way: to the feelings and situations of others and away from their own. So, yes, a chimpanzee that licks another’s wounds could, as Mr. de Waal says, be empathizing: sensing that it could be he who is in his companion’s place. But by suggesting that human fellow feeling is merely a variant of this innate animal response—by claiming that “leveling waves” are effacing the differences between humans and animals—Mr. de Waal goes too far. In his quest to rescue humankind from the charge of innate selfishness, he isn’t generous enough: He sells us short.

I appreciate the care with which Stark distinguishes the meanings of our four words, and the examples he provides to clarify these distinctions. I would guess, without having read de Waal’s book, that he may not distinguish between empathy and compassion as carefully as Stark does. For that matter, how many of us do? And is Stark’s understanding of the differences the same as yours or mine? It may be that Stark’s criticism does not so much refute de Waal as bring to the forefront their lack of agreement on terminology.

I have at hand the third edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Under the entry for “pity,” there is a usage note on the synonyms “pity, compassion, commiseration, sympathy, condolence, empathy.” We learn from the note that “These nouns signify sympathetic, kindly concern aroused by the misfortune, affliction, or suffering of another. … Compassion denotes deep awareness of the suffering of another and the wish to relieve it. … Empathy is a vicarious identification with and understanding of another’s situation.”

One is deep, the other vicarious. Maybe so. But I wouldn’t want to pronounce judgment on whether a chimp’s concerns are merely vicarious rather than deep.

Categories: Animals, Books, Language
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