Empathy: The Cornerstone of Good

Earlier this year, I was given an opportunity to deeply examine my core values. In this context, values are how a person wants to live their life and how they want to behave, rather than things they want to achieve or get. In the exercise I did, I was presented with a long list of possible values and told to select 5-6 that I identified with the most. I thought such a thing would be easy, but in reality I couldn’t get it down past about 10. The most interesting part, however, has been that in the few months since then there have been different periods of time where a subset of those values, say 3-4 of the 10, resonated with me and drove me much more deeply than the rest. I’ve found that in different situations I’ll look to different parts of my list of values to drive my behaviour. On the other hand, I’ve also found that one of those values, empathy, has been a strong, constant force in my life, and has not varied by situation like the others have. Over time, I’ve come to realise that I consider empathy the most important of all the values I hold, and I want to explore why that is.

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s feelings, thoughts, and situations from their point of view rather than your own. It is putting yourself in their place. There are many values and behaviours that are widely considered good, such as love, compassion, and generosity. I believe that empathy is the key to them all, and if someone adopts empathy as a guiding force in their life, it will lead them to love, compassion, and generosity, as well as other good values.

The reason for this is that empathy leads to open-mindedness.

Being able to put yourself in another person’s situation and understand them, particularly if it concerns a viewpoint or belief you disagree with, may actually lead you to realise the truth of a viewpoint other than your own. If you’re able to put yourself in another person’s frame of mind effectively enough, you will see the reasoning or emotion behind their decisions. Having seen this, you can then more accurately decide if you agree with their viewpoint or not, instead of relying on your own preconceptions. Open-mindedness is important because humanity is discovering new things every day. In the future, we may stumble on something that has the potential to change our lives in a positive way, or that requires strong action to prevent a negative outcome, and it is only if we are open-minded that we can recognise the truth of a new situation, move with it and learn from it, rather than resisting it and staying in place. Empathy is key to that, especially on an interpersonal level.

The above paragraph is really the crux of this post. Everything else stems from that. If you’re open-minded and empathetic, you can find things to love about people that you may strongly disagree with. When someone in a struggling situation asks you for help, empathising with them will lead you to the reasons for helping them, drive you to act out of compassion instead of selfishness, and to be generous with your assistance, not paying heed to your own needs or expecting reward. This covers the three values I listed above. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks for others too.

I want to look at a more specific application of empathy, because it underlies many things that are relevant to now and the immediate future.

Empathy reduces inequality
Inequality is a broad term, but empathy can help with most forms of it. If the rich empathised with the poor, actually understood what living in poverty meant, they might be more moved to part with their own wealth and power to improve the lives of others. If a perpetrator of abuse empathised with their victim and understood the damage their actions were causing, they might recognise that they’re doing the wrong thing. If, hypothetically, the politicians in a government empathised with suicidal offshore refugees that they’re keeping trapped in a situation that has been internationally condemned as a violation of basic human rights, they might be more moved to get those people the medical care and chance at life that they need.

We can look at inequality on a much smaller scale too. It is well-known that often, managers don’t understand the problems their employees face. This leads to managers putting up obstacles for their workers instead of tearing them down. If managers were either directly exposed to their employees’ working situations on a regular basis (often impractical), or if they were able to empathise enough from listening to their workers, they might be able to serve their workers better and maximise their performance because they understand what their workers need.

To give a personal example, my understanding of gender inequality was practically nonexistent until I met my girlfriend. Interacting with a woman on a regular basis and learning about challenges, obstacles, motivations and fears that are completely inconceivable to me as a male, but that real women around me have to go through and have gone through every day, has given me insight into situations I’d never imagined. Sometimes, I try to imagine myself as my girlfriend in a particular situation, weighing up everything she’s told me about how she has to go through life, and this gives me a different perspective on the world, one that is less biased and less one-sided. As a result, I am moved by the plight of women and those of non-binary gender, and willing to support all those who strive for gender equality. It is empathy that has done this.

Implementing empathy
Of course, actually applying empathy in this way can be hard. Empathising with someone requires some understanding of their situation. You can only empathise based on the data you have about a person, so learning more about the people around you may help you in placing yourself in their situation. On the other hand, I’ve sometimes found it easier to empathise with strangers than with some people I’m close to! Empathy can be very difficult, particularly when you don’t want to empathise with someone. This can happen when someone does or says something you very much disagree with. Understanding their position is uncomfortable, because understanding why someone acts in a way contrary to your own ideas may mean that your ideas are wrong, and that’s a scary thing for anyone to face. And so, even as empathy can lead to open-mindedness, it also requires a degree of open-mindedness to begin with. This is something that I’m still struggling with, but I’ve come to realise that moving towards having empathy for everyone around me is a worthy goal, as empathy can serve as a moral beacon that informs and directs other worthy values. This is not an easy task, but definitely a worthwhile one.

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