Coronavirus and the Absence of Empathy

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Res Ipsa
Posts: 1351
Joined: Mon Oct 26, 2020 6:44 pm

Coronavirus and the Absence of Empathy

Post by Res Ipsa »

Interesting article in the Post about the absence of empathy for victims of the coronavirus. I've been attributing this to the fact that the impact is spread out over time and occurs out of sight in hospitals. But the article reports on some research that shows empathy tends to be inversely proportional to the number of victims. We can imagine what it's like to another single person or a few other persons. But our imagination fails at trying to imagine what it's like to be 350,000 Americans suffering and dying alone, let alone their families and friends.

I think it illustrates an important difference between empathy and compassion that I've been puzzling over from time to time. The notion of empathy seems to me to be limited because it requires me to imagine what it's like to be the other. But that, I think, makes it tribal. People feel empathy for other people like them, but not for people that they cannot understand. Just as an example, I can't imagine being a person that would proudly wear a "F-- Your Feelings Shirt." Or would refuse to take even minimal precautions to avoid spread of a deadly disease. I can't imagine being them, so I can't feel empathy for them.

From the little I've encountered compassion, which is through mediation, it stems from the simple acknowledgment of common humanity. Buddhism has this concept of Duhka, which means something like "suffering," "pain," or "unhappiness." Duhka is viewed as a universal human condition -- something that we all have in common as part of being human. And that recognition of universality is what gives rise to compassion. I don't have to imagine what it's like to be another person -- just recognize that, just like me, he suffers and is trying to navigate through the suffering, just like I am.

Anyway, I first became aware of distinctions drawn between empathy and compassion several years ago. I saw a book that Steven Pinker recommended and added it to my reading list: Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Empathy by Paul Bloom. I'm firmly convinced that division is what has led to unnecessary suffering and death in this pandemic, and presents an existential challenge for human civilization when it comes to climate change. Empathy seems incapable of healing that divide. So maybe compassion. Maybe. ... re-deaths/
“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” -- Voltaire
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