The true value of empathy

2008-10-23 00:00

How can we enrich our relationships with others? The key skill is empathy, a skill that enables us to feel with another person and thus develop a reliable sense of what it is to be in that person’s shoes.

How can we develop or en-hance empathy, especially in a society with different cultures and a history of segregation like ours? We can find guidance from the methods of the comparative study of religions and the work of applied ethics scholar Joshua Halberstam.

The study of belief systems which one does not personally accept presents the scholar with an important challenge: how to see them on their own terms.

To meet this challenge, those studying the various faiths have developed two strategies. The first is to know and set aside your own value judgments, a strategy known as bracketing. This is done because our value judgments, particularly if they are strongly held, can so easily make us condemn what we do not adequately understand.

Bracketing opens the way to the second strategy, which is empathy. For example, a British scholar in the comparative study of religions, who is also a Christian, uses empathy to know what it feels like to be Jewish, or Islamic or an African traditionalist. For all scholars who are personally religious, it means coming to know and feel what it is like to be a secularist.

How do these scholars achieve the necessary empathy with people whose beliefs are so different from their own? An essential requirement is to find out as much as possible about their beliefs and way of life.

My long experience of religious studies and comparative ethics showed me that there is no better way than by listening carefully, sensitively and re-spectfully to such people, with no hint of any negative re-sponse to them. It also helps to visit their places of worship and see for oneself what happens. Here too it is vital to be sensitive and respectful.

More is needed than just in-formation, for empathy is about feelings, not just knowledge. How can you come to feel something of the reality of being a Muslim if you are Jewish, or an atheist if you believe in a God? How can you come to feel something of what it is like to be a vegetarian if you eat meat, a woman if you are a man, a gay person if you are heterosexual?

Here I turn to Halberstam. In his book Everyday Ethics he advises us first to reflect vividly on our own feelings. Think of great joy, burning anger, deep loyalty or a profound disbelief in something, like an attempt to justify apartheid. Next, remember that human beings have much in common, whatever their culture. Then use your imagination to transfer your own experience of those feelings to those you seek to understand.

An example will help us here. Suppose you eat meat and love a braai. A colleague at work or a classmate at school is a vegetarian. You have done your duty as a genuine truth-seeker by learning all you can about vegetarianism and the reasons for it.

Then recall vividly your own experience of revulsion at whatever you have found distasteful, and use your imagination, saying to yourself: “This person feels about meat-eating what I feel about cannibalism. Now I have a much better idea of what it feels like to be him or her.”

Clearly, imagination is a key skill in fostering empathy. Halberstam emphasises the value of literature, drama and film in helping us to stretch our imaginations by exposure through these activities to a range of characters and personalities quite unlike our own.

So we see just why empathy is so valuable in building the rich relationships a flourishing society needs. I think there are important lessons for education at any and every level. Also for nation-building and indeed for judging political parties.

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