Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Challenge to Empathize


Empathy is the ability to feel what the other person is feeling.

Beautiful meaning. Some even choose this quality to measure how "civilized" we are. The true yardstick of civilization. Not Technology, not cleanliness, not punctuality, but something broader that is inclusive of all of these things.

We clean our McDonalds messes only because we care how others coming after us to sit on the same table will feel. We care not to disgust them.

We choose to be punctual and On-time because we think to ourselves how annoyed and frustrated they would feel to be waiting for our late selves.

Even technology is a form of caring about others. The scientist or inventor goes through long and arduous efforts to come up with a new idea, and then implement it in the real world and make it commercially viable. What drives him/her to do it? to use the invention himself? to make his own life a tiny bit easier he would spend years of his life? doesn't make sense. Curiosity? Recognition? nowadays most pioneering inventions are only possible through large collaborative groups rather than individuals. The time of Great Singular Inventors is long gone with the 1800's and early 1900's. What drives technology these days in my opinion is the desire to do good. pure and simple. You hear it often said by innovators as "The gift to the future". Which is very apt because most likely the fruits of such advancements will not be felt in the present, but in the future. So Technology is also a form of Empathy.

Almost every form of Good-doing has to involve in its core the ability to "feel what the other person is feeling". Put yourself in their shoes. Feel their pain and misery. Once you do feel it, you'll start to act, not before. The action comes almost as a way of saving yourself from the pain you're feeling through others, through Empathy.

But again, why do we Empathize? true, lots of people DO know that when they empathize they will be inclined to do the right thing. But, people can learn from that experience and later choose NOT to empathize. They can choose to say "to hell with it, I don't want other people's headaches, I've got enough of my own.". Often I hear women (because I think they have a lesser defense against empathy) say "please don't tell me about that painful story.", or how my wife gets seriously troubled when she sees someone getting beaten or shot in a movie, because she can't help but "feel too much" for them. It disturbs her. Really gets to her.

Often you hear lawyers talking in a movie about a person on trial, about how it would be wise for the defense to mention the defendant's name, or bring his mother to the trial. They say this tactic helps force the jury to think of him as a "person", which causes them to empathize with him, and this way they'll be more capable of understanding the circumstances through his eyes, and therefor may be able to excuse him of ill intent.

Is Empathy "always" a good thing to do? I think so. yes. Even if it was a murderer or a rapist? yes I believe so. I do think that usually we can't over-do it. We have our limits. Up to a certain point where we refuse to subject ourselves to other people's pains anymore. We refuse to suffer emotionally as they suffer. And ofcourse we have every right to shield ourselves. Mo malzomeen.

I can go on and on about this.. it is perhaps one of the things that affect me the most when I think about my own sense of morality. And I am VERY lacking in my ability to empathize. But its already a very long post.

So what do YOU think?

63 comments:

Amethyst said...

I was thinking you haven't posted for a while;p

Okay. First, I love this post. Second, I do empathize, but sometimes, empathizing makes me feel like the person deserves what they got.

Big Pearls said...

Nice posting

Kaos said...

I don't think empathy is what morality boils down to. And yes you don't have to take other people's pain to be moral.
There are certain principles that you follow, sometimes these principles don't make certain people happy but things like equity and fairness for example are common principles that whether you had empathy for people or not wouldn't make a difference.

falantan said...

amethyst: inshalla I'll try harder in the future to post, but the ideas come when they come :)

1st, glad you liked it. 2nd definitely empathizing doesn't necessarily mean you'll want to let them off the hook. But I guess you can try to imagine it this way: if you felt what a guilty person felt as best you could, would you feel that you're willing to accept the consequences you've brought upon yourself? but also, feeling unfortunate people's problems (like simply poor people) can be a good thing to drive you to help them out.

big pearls glad you enjoyed it.

kaos Then I ask you, what drives "you" to be moral? if you tell me you take the rules and principles from God and accept them and follow them, in that case I can't and won't argue with you. ana muslim o agol same3na wa a6a3na.

But I've seen many crimes and injustices being done in the name of common sense and fairness.

who's to say this is fair and this is not? apples don't equal oranges. Islam says "lilthakar mithl 7ath il'onthayayn" belmerath, while humanistic morality says "they're both equal and should get the same amount". So alot of our daily life rules are NOT common. whats right here and wrong there. and vice versa.

But my point in the post is that whoever makes the rules, has 1 aim in mind, which is to make people live "good" lives. which ideally means for all of them to be happy. sa7? even punishment for crime is intended to save lives in the end. But without Empathy, why would you even care how happy other people are? and if you didn't care, then you can live by the law of the jungle and rob and kill and rape. which is exactly what happens when soldiers with low discipline settle in conquered lands, which I think is a result of their low empathy levels which they NEED to have low, otherwise they can't kill enemies efficiently.

Q80 Saracen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
meeemo said...

call it what you will but it all boils down to "it is the right thing to do" you could call it values / principals .

talking about MYSELF, i tend to get this feeling of whether this is something right or wrong because of the way i was raised.

Y do i pick up my tray after eating at the food court ... because it is the right thing to do...

At the end it has to do with the self. Each person is in control of what they do. And they are the judge of what is the right thing to do. How do you make sure? Check your value system / principals (most cases a persons religion)

It is the religion that teaches me to put myself in someone elses shoes, and want for others what i want for myself

meerameera said...

Very nice post :)

and yes im a very empathized person!!

falantan said...

q80_saracen: thanks and I'm glad you found it interesting!

meeemo: sure we do usually pick a set of rules and follow them without too much thinking. But that's only because of habit and the need to economize. You can't go around breaking your heart over every orphan, but you do it every once in a while and the next time you help out its because you've already trained yourself to do it.

besides, doing good deeds without thinking.. I don't know how much good is that. it's like "innama il'a3mal binniyat" and il5oshoo3 bessalat. if you don't really mean it, God knows.

falantan said...

q80_saracen: hmm.. comment deleted? weird. it didn't look at all offensive to anyone =/

meerameera: thanks and welcome to the blog :)

meeemo said...

i think you are right. What good does it do when we don't think about what we are doing.

It is very important to know why we are doing these thngs and ofcourse il niyah is the key ..

but the argument that you are making "that we follow them without thinking ..." is what i don't agree with.

We have to think about them and question them, only then do we learn the reasoning behind them, no? The increases our belief in them ...

And for me, that is when they become ingrained in us as principals and values ...


good topic btw ... challenges us to think :)

Smarties said...

welcome back awal shai, thany shai i think 3ala elle katba bl post i empathize 3ala nas w nas, shloun?

feh nas yestahloun ele y9eerlhoum, while others 7aram wallah ya3ny to9al ledarajat enna mazajy ye5areb w 3addy akte2ib 3lshanhoum!

w 3ala fekra 5alitny wayd afakr fe ashya2 asaweha, ma knt adree laish, bs now i know why.. thank you :)

Smarties said...

welcome back awal shai, thany shai i think 3ala elle katba bl post i empathize 3ala nas w nas, shloun?

feh nas yestahloun ele y9eerlhoum, while others 7aram wallah ya3ny to9al ledarajat enna mazajy ye5areb w 3addy akte2ib 3lshanhoum!

w 3ala fekra 5alitny wayd afakr fe ashya2 asaweha, ma knt adree laish, bs now i know why.. thank you :)

Kaos said...

Interesting question, 1st of all, how could u just assume that am moral? ;p
What drives me, well, its complex and has many factors to it of which empathy is a part of it. How significant it is? maybe not that significant, although it is one of the considerations. I would say that my self interest is a bigger internal driver in me than empathy, although I do like to help people.
The point about fairness I actually plagiarized from Stephen Covey's book "Principle Centered Leadership" But your point is very valid on fairness and how subjective or absolute it could be.
u gave me a lot to think about now :).
Well, would u agree for example that technologists, scientists, and tinkerers of all types are mainly internally motivated/driven to produce and progress? I guess its different among different people how much these drives matter to them individually, for some empathy is a big factor for others, maybe different types of ideals contribute more to their drives.
It is true that generally speaking law makers are after a better life for the people. Driven by empathy? maybe. But we probably would've seen more use of rehab than imprisonment if empathy was the main factor.
I guess I c ur point how empathy is a factor, however how significant it is I guess is different from one person to another imo.

Ms. D said...

empathy can not b taught.. ur born with it.. y3ny most my family r humanitarians ow good doers bs they do not empathize! i think now adays lotsa ppl are "showing" empathy to b thought of as an amazing charitable person while infact lo yahel kha6ar elshare3 jidamhom theyd speed up so they wont let him cross the street!

speakin abt myself.. i think i empathize to an extent that i keep thinking and reliving others circumstances ow aghalig wakte2eb 3ashanhom and i try my best to ease their lives anyway possible. given that i never share that to a soul!

falantan said...

meeemo: "follow them without thinking" by that I meant "without feeling why we're doing them", so infact I am also in agreement with what you're saying :)

smarties: mashkooor for the welcome, but I wasn't aware I was gone in the 1st place =)

as for picking choosing who we want to help, its unavoidable. no body can hope to help everyone they meet. would be nice, sure. but we're simply not that good. and empathizing with bad people doesn't mean we forgive unconditionally.. irrasool says "inser a5aak thalem aw mathloom", "in kan mathloom ntanserah, in kan thaalem ta5eth 3ala yadah (stop him)".

kaos: morality is not an badge, its more like a measure, like temperature, you can have alot of it, you can have some, you can have very little. :)

and we all love ourselves 1st and foremost. that doesn't make you a bad person bro :P bel3aks. taking care of yourself helps you take care of others.

As for innovators, I agree that some of the main drivers for them are stuff like love for respect and recognition, curiosity to be the 1st to discover something and gloat over the academic community that they're "da men". and so on. but I think these drivers don't push them far enough. they fizzle out along the way if there isn't something more profound behind it.

As for rehab vs. punishment. when I empathize with a killer, I should widen my circle.. I believe in "lakum felqasaas 7ayat". so by executing a killer, I'd be saving more lives and creating a sense of fear in whoever thinks of killing in the future. and in that scenario, I'm empathizing with the whole community, not just the 1 man.

Ms.D: lol you cracked me up as usual. speed up to cut off the child huh. but I think those people you speak of who do good DO think alot about the wellbeing of those who they help. o 3asahom o 3asach 3algowa i5ti :)

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