Is Goodness Possible Without Empathy?

Penn State Sociologist Sam Richards just took attendees at a TED conference on an experiment in empathy. Richards argues that sociology is impossible without empathy, but I think his radical experiment also shows something else: Goodness, at least in the form of the Golden Rule, isn’t possible without empathy. We may be able to fake it for a bit and force ourselves to treat someone else the way we’d like to be treated, but how long can any of us bludgeon ourselves into doing right when we don’t feel any empathy for the other person?

I thought I was an empathy expert, but Richards’ experiment took me places I had never gone before. Beside from shaping my thoughts about goodness in general, Richards’ experiment also left me pondering the goodness of American foreign policy. What would it look like if all of our politicians and every voter could think like Richards thinks?

Go ahead. I dare you to engage in Richards’ experiment.

This entry was posted in empathy, good vs. evil, Goodness Personified, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Is Goodness Possible Without Empathy?

  1. Edwin Rutsch says:

    May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    Also, we invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    Let’s Find 1 Million People Who Want to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion


  2. Linda Herzberg says:

    Sam Richards shows a great way to have empathy for the other person. I think it is difficult for most people to go there because it would require more thinking and challenging of their own world view. They do not want to have that kind of empathy because it makes nothing black and white any more.

    I guess I have more of that empathy because of my Native American heritage. Being both Indian and white, I can see both sides of the American country and Native American conflict and it is not black and white. I could relate to his talking about the Chinese because that is what America did in the name of manifest destiny to the Indians. A look at the Pine Ridge Reservation can give you some pictures of third world countries. There are still people without running water or electricity and it is not always because there is no money to pay for them. Sometimes it is because the infrastructure just isn’t there. Many jobs on the reservations go to “outsiders” and the US government holds many of the purse strings.

    As far as the arabs, and other people in the world, it is much easier to say they are wrong in what they do than to say we are wrong in what we do. In addition, we already have involvement in these countries and so have a history and structure that we are dealing with. As President Obama has discovered, knowing what to do or how to do good is not an easy decision. Whether we are getting deeper involved, getting less involved or doing the same as always, we cannot say which is good or bad because there are so many factors involved and so many factions.

    It seems there are no “good” answers.

    • dianesilver says:

      Thanks, Linda, for your comment. My first thought is: Despite the impossibility of doing so, each of us has to decide what is good, and we have to take action on that decision every day. This is true even on the scale of foreign policy.

      Obama is forced to do so because of the job he sought, but we all have a part in this as voters and as taxpayers. If we throw up our hands and do nothing, then we’re still taking action because our inaction has consequences. Inaction supports the status quo. If we are truly taking on the task of walking a goodness path, then can any of us dare to not to act?

  3. dianesilver says:

    Oops, I forgot to say, Linda, that I agree with your assessment of why empathy is so hard, particularly empathy for those we label our enemies. A few years ago I was challenged to feel empathy for those on the anti-gay religious right. Oh my, that hurt! But it was still worthwhile. So, now I feel empathy for those who seek to destroy me and my family. So, what do I do with that? One thing has gotta be to treat them with respect even as I oppose their actions.

  4. Rob Ramcharan says:

    Professor Reynolds recalls that this is how they ended up with the Reavers on “Firefly”.

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