Empathy for the Vicious: A Puzzle (Guest Post by Olivia Bailey)

Much of the ever-growing conversation concerning empathy’s moral significance has centered around cases where the target of our empathy is another person’s suffering. Today, I want to consider a puzzle that comes into sharper focus when we start to consider empathy with other sorts of attitudes. Briefly, the puzzle is this: there is reason to think that part of being virtuous is ministering effectively to others’ needs, and there is also reason to think that other people may genuinely need to be empathized with, even (or perhaps especially when) their emotional outlooks are at least venially vicious. So, it looks like the virtuous person should be capable of empathizing with vicious outlooks. But empathy with vicious outlooks seems to involve seeing the world in a less than virtuous way, and at least one prominent way of thinking about the psychology of the virtuous person excludes the possibility that the virtuous could see the world in a less than virtuous way.

 

I will use the term “empathy” to pick out a form of emotionally charged imaginative perspective-taking. Empathy in the sense that interests me is importantly different from both emotional contagion and compassion. It necessarily involves using one’s imagination to “transport” oneself, such that one considers the other’s situation as though one were occupying the other’s position. Let me now spell out the puzzle a bit more fully. The question for me is: which of the claims below should we give up, if any?

 

  1. A virtuous person will be capable of ministering effectively to others’ genuine needs.

Of course, a virtuous person may not be able to minister effectively to others’ genuine needs in cases where external/material conditions make that impossible, so perhaps the qualification “psychologically capable” would be useful here.

  1. A virtuous person will not be tempted by (i.e. her desires, wishes, and emotions will not be attuned to) considerations that recommend acting in a way contrary to virtue.

This claim is famously defended by John McDowell (see especially “Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?” and “Virtue and Reason” in his Mind, Value and Reality (OUP: 1998)). The virtuous person’s lack of temptation is said to distinguish her from the merely continent person.

  1. When we succeed in empathizing with others, we emotionally apprehend the others’ situation in the same light that they do.

We adopt their emotional perspective on their situation, as we picture it in our imagination. This entails that we appreciate first-hand the intelligibility of their emotional perspective. We can say: we understand them empathetically.

  1. It can be exceptionally painful and isolating not to be understood empathetically.

We often feel bitterly disappointed when people cannot or will not empathize with us. This is true even when (especially when?) we ourselves recognize that our own emotional outlook falls into one or more of the following categories: it is irrational, it is immoral, it is unhealthy.

  1. We sometimes genuinely need to be empathetically understood, even in cases where our own emotional outlook falls into one or more of the following categories: it is irrational, it is immoral, it is unhealthy.

An inference from (4) above. This inference is potentially dubious. Genuine pains may not always correspond to genuine needs. Nevertheless, we might think that the fact that we are in real pain is at least a defeasible reason to think we have a genuine need for the remedy for that pain.

  1. Satisfying others’ genuine need to be empathetically understood will sometimes entail adopting (even if only temporarily) emotional outlooks that are irrational and/or immoral and or/unhealthy.

This seems to follow from (3) and (5) above.

  1. So, a virtuous person will at least sometimes need to adopt emotional outlooks that are irrational and/or immoral and or/unhealthy.

This seems to follow from (1) and (6) above.

  1. (2) and (7) are in conflict.

 

I’m curious to know if folks feel the force of the puzzle I’ve tried to spell out. Is one or more of the above claims an obvious non-starter?

16 Replies to “Empathy for the Vicious: A Puzzle (Guest Post by Olivia Bailey)

  1. Very interesting puzzle! As philosophy isn’t the area I work in I don’t normally comment on these things, and so my comment below my reflect some ignorance of the field.

    For me the puzzle stems from the way 3 is understood. I think there is a distinction between feeling and emotion and imaging that one feels an emotion. The puzzle seems to require that successful empathize entails actual feeling the same emotions as the one being empathized with. IMO empathizing makes more sense as only requiring that one imagine oneself feeling the same emotion given the same position as the one being empathized with. To reference what you note in the beginning as the more common case considered in the literature, another’s suffering, I don’t think that empathizing with a suffering person, requires that you literally share their emotional state, only that you imagine you would given their position.

    Am I missin something important/relevant?

  2. How are we to understand “adopting” in (6) and (7)?

    Is adopting equivalent to some kind of endorsement? Or is it merely recognizing how one could feel and think given certain features of their situation? I’m not sure why we would need to endorse the former, stronger, understanding. I guess I am just stuck on the way (6) is formulated. Can “adopting” just mean “trying on for the sake of full understanding”…in a way similar to how someone might “adopt” a position contrary to their own for the sake argument?

  3. Thanks for the helpful question, Eric! Adopting need not mean endorsing, but it does not merely amount to knowing how one would think or feel in the situation, either (that sort of knowing how seems possible from a strictly third-personal perspective). “Trying on” is the closest to what I meant. Now, you might think that so long as the empathizer is not *endorsing* the perspective they are “trying on,” empathy with vicious perspectives is compatible with full virtue. But a prominent strain of theorizing in the Aristotelian virtue ethical tradition has it that the difference between a truly virtuous person and a merely enkratic person is that the enkratic person is subject to incorrect perception of value, but chooses to act well nevertheless because they do not endorse these faulty perceptions, whereas the virtuous person never even sees things wrongly to begin with. It seems to me that unless we abandon that characterization of the enkratic/virtuous distinction, we will be left saying that even one who “tries on” vicious ways of seeing without endorsing them must fall short of complete virtue.

  4. And replying to B above: thank you! So yes, one way out of this puzzle would be to deny that empathizing involves actually apprehending the other’s situation as if from their perspective! That’s certainly a line of thought worth pursuing. Drawing upon your suggestions: we could say, hey, I empathize with John’s jealousy just so long as (1) I imagine feeling jealousy or (2) I imagine that I would feel jealous in your situation (you seem to be attracted to one of both of those options). NO actual feeling need be involved on my part, at all. Here’s my thinking on those options. (2) doesn’t strike me as very promising, for two reasons. First, it seems to me that I can imagine that I would feel x in situation y, just as the target of my empathy now does, without empathizing. For instance, suppose we are talking about a friend who has taken an aggression-inducing drugs (PCP, say) and is now full of rage. I imagine that, were I to take PCP, I probably would have a similar reaction. The rage is predictable. Nevertheless, it is totally bewildering to me. I can’t recognize my friend’s rage as in any way responsive to the evaluative features of her situation. To me, my attitude in this case doesn’t feel like it clears the bar for empathy. (2) is also not too promising in the context of solving our problem about virtue, since its hard to make sense of a virtuous person imagining that she would feel jealous (given that jealousy is, ex hypothesi, a vice she lacks). (1) seems more promising. The question then becomes, what does imagining feeling jealousy involve? Does it involve looking at the situation the other confronts from a jealous perspective, or not? If it does, then the problem persists. If it does not…well, then we have an answer to our puzzle. But I think we will have bitten a bit of a bullet if we go this route. Don’t we tend to think that empathy involves seeing things from the other person’s point of view?

  5. This is an interesting puzzle. I largely agree with B’s comment: empathetic understanding, in a sense in which virtuous people should be capable of it, does not require actually feeling what the target of empathy feels.
    Your response to B seems to rely on the assumption that if a proposed solution falls short of counting as real empathy, then it should be rejected. But this of course raises the question again of what we mean be “empathy”. Perhaps we could approach the puzzle by considering what it really is that is needed from the virtous person, without getting hung up on a particular definition of empathy.
    In my opinion, all that is needed for empathic understanding of the kind that plays a role here, is that the empathiser has a) a correct and full cognitive grasp of the empathizee’s outlook (e.g. knowing what it is the vicious person hates about someone, and why the vicious person hates that), and b) a sufficiently analogous emotional experience in their past, thus enabling the virtous person to have a good sense of what it is like to feel what the vicious person feels. If this can be provided, the need for empathic understanding can be met, without the virtous person “seeing things wrongly”, while still involving a kind of “seeing things from the other’s point of view”.
    Take the PCP example. To emphatically understand that person, I need to know not only that the rage is predictable, and that I would also be in rage, had I taken the drug; I also need to know from experience what it is like to be in rage. Then I can understand why the person is APPARENTLY not responsive to the evaluative features of her situation. In fact, the friend IS responsive, but makes evaluative or interpretative mistakes. Rage presents non-soothing, or non-cooperative situations as warranting drastically aggressive responses, whether they in fact warrant them or not. Having had the experience of being in rage can enable the virtuous person to understand the friend, without also seeing the situation as warranting aggression.
    I might call this kind of understanding “empathetic”, while you may not, but shouldn’t really be an issue.

  6. The puzzle is set up inter-personally, but I wonder if a solution is more obvious if we consider the possibility that the virtuous person could be adopting the outlooks of her past, pre-virtuous self.

    Should a virtuous person refuse to empathize with the failings of her (past) self?

  7. That’s for the reply!

    I was thinking of something along the lines of 2) “I imagine that I would feel jealous in your situation,” not 1) (as that fails to require an appreciation for the reasons causing the emotion, which is an important component of empathy IMO) – Though, picking up on something Tobias said, I would qualify it as additionally requiring that I have felt the same or similar emotion in the past. To handle the obvious(?) case in which the emotion is non-virtuous by definition, we could follow Guy and note that it seems likely that a person would’ve felt at least a similar emotion if not the same one, at some point in their life prior to becoming virtuous (unless you intended that the hypothetical virtuous person was born virtuous, in which case I’d wonder why that’s a requirement)

    Regarding your comment that 2) wouldn’t solve the puzzle because one can imagine feeling something given another’s situation without necessarily empathizing – I agree that is possible, but I don’t see why that rules out 2 as a solution, unless empathizing does not involve imaging in any sense, or else there is no other condition that could possibly be added to distinguish imagining as part of empathizing from mere imagining. Besides stipulating that one have felt at least a similar emotion in the past, I would think that such imagining should motivate the desire to take some action to qualify as empathizing (but that might be a bit of a hand-wave as well). Still if that isn’t enough to save 2 as a possible solution, I’m at a loss for what is meant by empathizing in this case … (A lack of empathy on my part? ha … though more seriously I wonder if there is a relation to the principle of charity in philosophic debate).

    To look at it from a slightly different angle (and to evently comment on how a virtuous person could imagine acting non-virtuously), similar to how you brought up the virtuous/enkratic distinction, I wonder what you imagine motivates non-virtuous behavior? To the extent that its due to imperfect information, faulty logic, or a failure to fully consider/imagine the consequences of an action, I think that the virtuous person should be able to work backwards from the context to at least one possible explanation for the non-virtuous behavior, even if such faulty reasoning wouldn’t ordinarily occur to them as something to even consider. If not 1) the virtuous person doesn’t seem very intelligent (queue Dostoevskey) and 2) it seems like the only person a virtuous person could empathize with is another virtuous person (which seems to miss the mark w/re to what people ordinarily mean). Consider a virtuous person empathizing with the enkratic person, to do so, they would have to imagine what its like to at least consider non-virtuous behaviors (so as to empathize with the difficultly of acting virtuously all the time, e.g.) – If they can, I don’t see why they can’t in the case of the non-virtuous person acting badly (assuming the cause isn’t simply, they’re inherently bad).

  8. Just a reminder of our policy here at the Soup: Please provide full names when posting comments, or they are likely to be deleted, thanks!

  9. I’m thinking the way the virtue empath should go is to deny (1). That isn’t, of course, to deny that it’s characteristic of virtuous people to minister effectively to others’ genuine needs, but to deny that it’s criterial of virtue that one be capable of ministering effectively to *all* others’ genuine needs.

    If I’m in need of a getaway driver, I don’t think the virtuous person is required to be prepared to help me. Indeed, if I’m in need of a getaway driver, I’m not *looking* for the ministrations of a virtuous person: I’m looking for someone to support me in my vice. Similar for the empathic needs of the temperamentally vicious: those needs are better fulfilled by those who are also vicious. The fact that this form of fellowship doesn’t help make either of us better is I think Aristotle means in saying that the bad can be friends, but that this friendship makes them worse.

  10. This may just be another way of putting Eric B’s point about a possible equivocation of ‘adopt’, but it is at least not obvious to me that 2 and 7 are in conflict.
    2. A virtuous person will not be tempted by (i.e. her desires, wishes, and emotions will not be attuned to) considerations that recommend acting in a way contrary to virtue.
    7. A virtuous person will at least sometimes need to adopt emotional outlooks that are irrational and/or immoral and or/unhealthy.

    All that 7 requires is that I can see the ends of the person I empathize with as (in some sense at least) good. But that I can do without being tempted by those goods to vicious action. In general, the virtuous still see what is good about vicious action (I would think). Suppose a virtuous person has an innocent friend being tried for a crime. The only way to ensure he is acquitted is to commit perjury. Even if the temperate person would not commit perjury and, by hypothesis, not be tempted to commit perjury, it still seems likely that she would see acquittal as good, just not be tempted to a vicious means to secure that good.

    So if virtuous can appreciate the good of acquittal, and am capable of basic means end reasoning, she can empathize with what other’s see as good in committing perjury. Indeed, she sees that good. she simply is not tempted to act upon it. This seems to satisfy the requirement of 3 to emotionally apprehend another’s perspective. 3 is glossed with “this entails that we appreciate first-hand the intelligibility of their emotional perspective” which it seems can be done without being tempted by that intelligible end.

    Now, I think there might still be a deep puzzle here. Because it also seems plausible that there might be cases, not where the virtuous are not tempted by what someone sees as good, but where the virtuous cannot see something as good. Plausibly the virtuous could not empathize with a racist person filled with resentment at growing equality. Its not that the virtuous person can see what is good but them not feel tempted to vice by that goodness, its that a virtuous person could not see racial inequality under the guise of the good in the first place (we can easily generate any number of terrible ends that human somehow seem capable of desiring).

    These cases i’m just inclined to think virtue requires a different type of empathy, not empathy in seeing the evil as good, but empathy in understanding why this person was driven to such a perspective (which is something one can see without sharing the perspective I think). I don’t have any defense of this claim, though perhaps this puzzle partially serves that purpose.

  11. Thanks, y’all. Time for some responses!

    Tobias said: “Perhaps we could approach the puzzle by considering what it really is that is needed from the virtuous person, without getting hung up on a particular definition of empathy.” That seems totally right. The real problem is not whether we need “empathy” and what that requires, but whether what we need from other people, in the realm of imaginative perspective-taking, is not something a fully virtuous person can give us.

    Tobias further said: “Take the PCP example. To emphatically understand that person, I need to know not only that the rage is predictable, and that I would also be in rage, had I taken the drug; I also need to know from experience what it is like to be in rage. Then I can understand why the person is APPARENTLY not responsive to the evaluative features of her situation. In fact, the friend IS responsive, but makes evaluative or interpretative mistakes. Rage presents non-soothing, or non-cooperative situations as warranting drastically aggressive responses, whether they in fact warrant them or not. Having had the experience of being in rage can enable the virtuous person to understand the friend, without also seeing the situation as warranting aggression.”

    First point: I *don’t* think that I need to know “that I would also be in rage, had I taken the drug” for the kind of valuable understanding I am after (I’m going to keep calling empathetic for ease of reference). I think being able to make accurate predictions of this sort can actually come apart quite dramatically from being able to secure empathetic understanding. Perhaps my body won’t actually metabolize PCP that way, so I can’t know that it would also inspire rage in me, but that’s neither here nor there.

    But that’s not the most important aspect of Tobias’ suggestion. Tobias is also encouraging us to think that what we need for the kind of empathetic understanding worth wanting is not the apprehension of the other’s current situation from a vengeful perspective, but just the experience of having felt rage in the past. I have spent a lot of time puzzling over the role that memory of past vicious perceptions might serve, and how/whether it can give us everything we want. (here I want to acknowledge Guy’s comment along these lines). BUT here’s the thing: I want to know what that (episodic) memory of the experience of having felt rage in the past is like. One option is that it is just a memory of the feeling, sans intentional content. But in that case, I am pulled toward the thought that my memory alone is not up to the task of furnishing a complete understanding of the other’s current rage, precisely because an important part of that rage *is* its intentional content (now, there’s still the option of saying that the only part of our emotional experience we need/want to be understood is that feeling dimension. Totally a possibility. Just not one that strikes me as very attractive. If I’m angry that someone has insulted me, *I* don’t just want my friend to say, hey, I know what it feels like to be angry. I want them to see how the insult looks offensive, worthy of anger). The other possibility is that (episodic) memory of the experience of having felt rage in the past is not just the memory of a feeling, but also a first-personal memory of how things looked to you (so, intentional content included). But in that case, I worry that the person who can have that sort of first-personal memory may actually also be in violation of the rules for virtuous vision.

  12. Ian has taken a different tack, one that I am quite sympathetic too. There are two options here, as I see it. We could say, as Ian suggests, that it isn’t criterial of virtue that one be capable of ministering effectively to *all* others’ genuine needs. OR, a slightly different but related thought, we could say that “needs” that a virtuous person isn’t capable of ministering to aren’t *genuine* needs.

    One of the thoughts that got me stuck in this puzzle is that actually, quite a lot of the everyday attitudes that we genuinely want empathy for are at least mildly vicious. Think: petty jealousy, weakness of will, slightly peevish feelings, ect. A person who just couldn’t empathize with these attitudes, to me, seems like they really are missing something important, something I’d really want in a friend. Their relationships will be impaired, not just with me but with, frankly, most other people. Now, as Ian says, that might be the hard lesson Aristotle is pointing us toward: virtuous people aren’t going to be the kind of folk most of us can have really robust and fulfilling personal relationships with. But then I am a bit tempted to say: that’s some reason either to be unhappy with Aristotle’s conception of virtue, or to think that being virtuous isn’t really as desirable as we might have thought.

  13. I’m struck by how Susan Wolf, ‘Moral Saints’-like your line here is–which isn’t something I’d been thinking much of at first. I can’t help but think, though, that as much as we *do* want to share our petty jealousies, and as much as we enjoy and prefer friends who feel them (and who express them hilariously), that’s fairly described as us caring about and seeking something *other than* virtue! So I’m ready to follow an importantly different version of your last suggestion that being virtuous isn’t really as desirable as we might have thought. That would be: we don’t really desire as much to be virtuous as we (often) think we do.

  14. Hi Olivia,

    Apologies for being a bit late to the conversation. Interesting puzzle and great discussion!

    In reading through your post and exchanges with others, I was reminded of Plato’s discussion of the doctor and judge in Republic, Book III (408d-409d). He makes a couple of claims that may be relevant to your puzzle.

    First, he distinguishes between a good doctor and a good judge, claiming that the former needs to have personal experience with illness but the latter needs not to have personal experience with injustice. The doctor, it seems, must have personal experience with illness in order to fully understand her patients’ symptoms; but this won’t get in the way of her treating them well, as she treats them with her soul and not with her body. The judge, however, “does rule other souls with his soul,” and so, it seems, this is why he must have a soul untainted by vice (at least, while his character is forming in his youth). So, perhaps there’s a distinction to be made between different kinds of vice when considering whether the virtuous person can empathize with those who are vicious. Perhaps there are some vices that are like the doctor’s ill bodily health and don’t interfere with correct judgment, whereas there are other vices that would. If so, we could say that the virtuous person could empathetically understand, in the most robust senses mentioned above, the former but not the latter. This is, in some ways, similar to the proposal you take from Ian’s comment, above, that the virtuous person isn’t capable of effectively ministering to all others’ genuine needs. But it’s not exactly the same, because, so far as I can see, it only commits one to claiming that the virtuous person can’t empathize in the same way with every vice. Perhaps the virtuous person can empathize in a more robust sense with some vices and a less robust sense with others.

    The second claim Plato makes that may be relevant to this discussion has to do with when the good judge comes into contact with vice, namely, in old age. The idea seems to be that the judge must have a fully formed good character before he comes to know injustice. This way it will be “alien” to him. Perhaps this speaks against the proposal that the virtuous person would empathize with (certain forms of) vice by remembering her own past feelings. If she first comes into contact with (certain forms of) vice in old age, she wouldn’t have earlier experiences to recall. Perhaps she must empathetically understand (certain forms of) vice in some other way.

    In sum, Plato’s comments suggest that perhaps we should distinguish between different forms of vice and claim that the virtuous person can empathetically understand these different forms in different ways. I wonder what you think about this.

  15. @Marshall Thompson: “In general, the virtuous still see what is good about vicious action (I would think).”

    So would I, provided we qualify it to say that the virtuous see what is *apparently* good (to the vicious) about vicious action. Being able to see that is a condition of the event’s intelligibility as an intentional action.

    And once the virtuous recognize the apparent good at stake, they can empathize with a desire for it (and likewise, mutatis mutandis, for other emotions or passions and their objects).

  16. Sorry for the belated replies, folks, I got knocked down by a nasty cold! Ian, one direction I had definitely considered taking this in was framing it as a Wolf-ish thought. Wolf mostly stresses that virtuous people would be lakcing on the interpersonal front in virtue of being unamusing or dull, though. I want to maybe push things a little further. It’s not just that the truly virtuous aren’t wickedly amusing to us– it’s that they are not really capable of *being with* us, of fulfilling a particular sort of need for intimacy.

    Ben, thanks for the very interesting Plato connection! I’m not sure exactly how to accommodate that thought about the possible heterogeneity of virtue within a McDowellian scheme (where all vices seem to consist at least partly in wrong ways of seeing) but perhaps we want to say: so much the worse for that scheme. I’d be interested to know whether you have any inkling as to which vices would go into the respective categories you propose.

    Re Michael and Marshall’s points: so, one option here is indeed to say that the virtuous can see the apparent goodness of the vicious action. But if that is right, then we may have to abandon the strategy for differentiating between the enkratic and the virtuous which says: the difference is that one sees the bad as good (even if they ultimately reject that appearance), whereas the other does not.

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