Empathy and ethics

Is empathy a virtue? Can it be put to conscious use?

Frater Acher has a couple very interesting pieces “On Magic and Empathy” and “A string played from both ends: on Empathy and Magic,” which present some opinions that I think merit consideration. He regards empathy as a tool and not a virtue, which is a bold position considering it runs counter to the mainstream here in the West. Since this is a topic of major interest to me and I think it could benefit others, I want to address it.

The difference between sympathy and empathy has always been a bit vague to me. My understanding is that sympathy can be a matter of natural affinity (though not necessarily), while empathy is a conscious choice to try an experience a situation from another person’s perspective. It’s easy to see a conscious choice to empathize as a virtue, but we should consider that critically, rather than taking it as a given. Furthermore, what about when empathy isn’t a conscious choice?

Let me back up a bit. In Western cultures, between five and six senses are recognized: taste, touch, hearing, sight, smell, and sometimes, a “sixth sense” or “second sight.” But this sixth sense has in turn been broken down into various kinds of “psychic” ability. In parapsychology and paranormal research, it has been customary for the past century or so to refer to these abilities as clair-whatever. Clairvoyance, claircognizance, clairsentience, clairaudience, etc. Collectively, I call these the clairs. The idea is that these result in the same or similar kind of sense impressions as the other five senses, but are not mediated by the body’s sense organs. The information comes directly into consciousness, as it were.

Another category has been recognized in the past 25 years or so, that of the empath. An empath is someone who feels the emotions of other people, not in the ordinary way that humans, as social primates, read each other; not in the sense of inferring or imagining what another person feels, but actually feeling it exactly as if it were your own emotion, to the point that it is often difficult to determine with whom the emotion originated in the first place.This includes “feelings” in the sense of emotions, in the sense of physical sensations, and in the sense of “vibes.”

Counselor Troi feels your pain.
Counselor Troi feels your pain.

I am one of these people, but I don’t particularly like the term empath, for several reasons: (1) Note that “empath” refers to the person having the ability. What would the ability itself be called? Empathy? But empathy is a normal ability that pretty much everyone has and uses on a day-to-day basis. Those who don’t have it are typically regarded as mentally ill (e.g., sociopaths) because their behavior is so far outside the expected. How do we distinguish between the two? Are they qualitatively different, or merely a matter of degree? (2) I’m not sure where the term “empath” originated. I first encountered it in the person of Counselor Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Fairly or unfairly, the pop-culture and sci-fi associations don’t enhance the credibility of the category when you come out of the fortune-teller’s closet to your friends and family. (3) There was already a term for this ability: clairsentience. (Some empaths dispute that it’s the same thing as clairsentience but I think it is, at best, splitting hairs.) (4) Though this would be a problem regardless of terminology, it deserves mention: There is confusing overlap with a category recognized by some (non-mainstream) psychologists, the “Highly Sensitive Person” or HSP, which in turn overlaps with what used to be called “neurosis” and with cultural factors such as how much empathy is rewarded or punished by one’s peers.

Does being clairsentient/empathic make me virtuous? It does make me painfully sensitive to others’ feelings, and I sincerely try not to cause suffering. But I’m not saying that I’ve never done anything to hurt someone else. In fact, I regret to say that in moments of rage I have a special talent for finding the exact most vicious and mean thing to say and blurting it out. It’s just that afterwards I feel beyond-horrible when I start to sense the other person’s feelings and realize that I caused that. Guilt and shame do not even begin to cover what that feels like.

super sniffer
I wish I could turn my super sniffer off. 😦

And lest you think that I am bragging, let me tell you clairsentient empathy is no bed of roses. My sensitivity is not only emotional, it seems to be part and parcel of my whole nervous system. I’m intensely bothered by certain sounds and all bright lights. I’m a supertaster and supersmeller. I get drunk practically just from looking at alcohol (possibly the best thing about this clairsentience gig is that I don’t actually have to buy booze, I can just hang around drunk people to get a buzz), get all the side effects of pharmaceuticals including the rare ones, and my skin is uncomfortably sensitive to certain materials (polyester does not touch this body). Highly-charged emotional situations are a problem, especially sex because it combines both emotional and physical stimulation. It is virtually impossible to sleep in the same bed with another person. I need a ton of alone time. I am a people-pleaser and over-nurturer and often despise that about myself. Perfectly ordinary situations make me want to scream and run away.

In fact, I regard uncontrolled clairsentience as bordering on a disability. Maybe not even bordering. It’s a pathological lack of boundaries and there are undesirable tendencies that frequently accompany strong clairsentience. I base this not only on my own experiences but on conversations with many other self-described empaths. They are generalizations, and of course there are exceptions to every rule, but this is what I’ve observed in broad strokes:

  • Most people are agreed that having boundaries is a good thing; empaths have next to none. This can lead to extreme emotional lability–imagine constant PMS-like moodiness.
  • With such raw senses, empaths frequently expect everyone to tiptoe around their triggers.
  • For those in relationships or sharing a residence with an empath, you can pretty much kiss your emotional privacy goodbye, but woe betide you if you lie, attempt to obfuscate, or trespass on the empath’s privacy.
  • Many empaths love the feeling of total merging with another person for a while, only to become super-irritated when that other person is “too close.”
  • Empaths often think they are attracted to another person when in fact they are picking up the other person’s attraction to the empath. Inevitably the empath realizes they aren’t really interested in their partner after all. Woops! Do they then abruptly break off the relationship? Or continue so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings?
  • Empaths can be manipulative without even realizing it, and though most will avoid a fight to the point of being passive-aggressive, when they want to, they know how to wound.
  • After a fight or break up, there is nothing an empath hates more than lack of closure or a solution, and they may hound the other person until they get it. Similarly, many empaths seem to feel it’s their mission to fix everything and everyone. But knowing what others are feeling does not mean understanding how and why they have come to feel that way, or what to do to fix it. Therefore the empath’s attempts to solve the problem can just make it worse.
  • Even when it comes to identifying emotions, empaths do sometimes get it wrong–they are just as subject as anyone else to errors of interpretation. As Ingo Swann has said, getting information psychically is one thing, but it is then subject to the mind’s “analytical overlay.” The more you think you know about something, the more likely you are to filter it through your preconceptions. Or as Mark Twain put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that get’s you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” After being right about others’ emotions for years, some empaths become convinced they are never wrong.
  • Some empaths develop an unconscious ability to shield themselves by becoming numb or closed off; they can be incredibly difficult to connect with.
  • Two words: martyr complex.
  • Finally, there are empaths who think they are the epitome of virtue and goodness.

Don’t strain yourself trying to pat yourself on the back while tooting your own horn, empaths. You need to get your shit together (says the voice of experience). Every empath needs two things: (1) to learn to modulate their sensitivity according to the context, and (2) a system of personal ethics and self-care. And although I won’t presume to tell you what your ethics should be, I will say that taking care of (1) takes care of most of (2). That’s why meditation is so essential to the Great Work. Meanwhile, you’ll notice that I said self-care–no one else is responsible for your sensitivity. But you also don’t have to be a sucker and give people a hundred chances because you can see the tiny seed of goodness somewhere within them. If you don’t have natural, instinctive barriers, perhaps try putting up some arbitrary ones just to see what it feels like.

And this brings me back to Fr. Acher and the question, is empathy a virtue? He argues that empathy has been fetishized as a “universal solvent” that can heal all ills, but such an extreme attitude risks making empathy “isolated, imbalanced and ultimately deformed–over time equally deforming its devotees.” He also worries, understandably, about the negative fallout that may happen to anyone who is perceived to not empathize correctly or enough. The command to empathize could all too easily become a demand for conformity, which is anathema to magic folk.

On this latter point I am 100% in agreement. Lately I can barely hear myself think for the din of well-meaning but lazy “progressive” speech-police jumping on each other and everyone else for innumerable perceived transgressions. As in so many other aspects of life nowadays, the pretense is what matters, not the actuality. Real compassion for others prompts you to make real change; pretend compassion prompts you to bloviate about everyone else’s failure to make cosmetic changes. This is an example of the deformed empathy Fr. Acher mentions.

But there are two claims I need to dispute. The first is that highly empathetic people are obnoxious and impose themselves on others. The second is that empathy is projection. Neither is one of Acher’s main points, but I still feel they need addressing.

First, he cites an example of a supposedly highly empathetic person who is lauded, but who obviously sets off Acher’s alarm bells*. The characteristics that are extolled as virtues strike Acher as invasive, manipulative, infantilizing, needy, and un-self-reflective.

His critiques are not entirely unfounded. I have to admit the way the person is described, she sounds irritating. And as you read above, there are pitfalls that go with extreme sensitivity. On the other hand, Acher’s reaction seems overly defensive. When empathy is working, one realizes when one is making others uncomfortable and, hopefully, changes one’s behavior. So it seems to me that what Acher is complaining about is a failure of empathy.

Secondly, Acher implies (in both articles linked above) that empathy is merely projection. For example:

“…what magicians need to function well in society can be described as a different kind of empathy: They need the ability to NOT conclude from their own inner states on other people. As magicians we need the skill to NOT project our own feelings and emotions onto other people.”

“So learning to be empathetic…requires us to being [sic] with a pretty counter-intuitive first step: that is to tame, to hold back and comtain [sic] our own emotions – so they do not cloud our ability to observe objectively and unbiased….only once we are ready to let go of our own needs and stop projecting them on beings around us that are essentially different to us, have we built a first maiden-fundament for future magical practice…”

I am not sure where this notion of empathy-as-projection comes from, but it makes little sense to me. I’m not denying projection happens, and that it’s undesirable. But what makes Acher think that it is specific to empathy? I have considered the following possibilities:

  • Perhaps what Acher means is that, when consensus pressures people, their attempts to achieve a higher level of empathy leads to projection.
  • Or perhaps there’s a difference in how “empathy” (or for that matter “virtue”) is conceived in Germany, which I believe is Acher’s native country, versus in the Anglophone world. For example, perhaps he is thinking of empathy in terms of the effort to feel from another’s perspective, rather than the process of actually doing so.
  • Or perhaps he is actually thinking of the “analytical overlay” that gets applied to empathy, that distorts the raw sensations.

I don’t know. I do know that in a social species living in large, complex groups–such as Homo sapiens–there is a major selective advantage in being able to accurately assess the emotional state of other members of your group. As any primatologist can tell you, even monkeys empathize. If all empathy were just a matter of projection, there would be a large number of false attributions of emotion that led to disastrous consequences, and the ability would never have come to be common in primates. In other words, empathy is a real process, and while projection is an ever-present human issue, I don’t think empathy predisposes anyone to it–in fact, it’s the cure for projection.

Acher’s ultimate argument seems to be that you have to turn your empathy off in order to become truly empathetic. I read this as meaning the process has to be brought under control and made subject to conscious application. As he puts it, in magic, empathy “is a tool and not a virtue.” Though I don’t think of it as a tool per se, I certainly wouldn’t call my empathy/clairsentience a virtue, any more than farting or burping is. It happens whether I want it to or not; I don’t have to work at it, in fact, I have to work at restraining it. Strongly empathetic/clairsentient people may have an extra hurdle to overcome in developing inner stillness and learning how and when to turn their sensitivity up or down (that’s certainly how it has been for me…sigh), but provided you are willing to put in the work, I don’t see why you can’t become a kick-ass magician. (Or whatever.) On the other hand, strongly empathetic people may find it easier to accept and experience the emptiness, in the Buddhist sense (sunyata), of the individual ego-self. I understand this comes in very handy as protection.

Suffice it to say, for those who are clairsentient empaths or strongly empathetic, it is imperative to get your sensitivity under control, because not only will it make you miserable otherwise, you will in turn make others miserable. Not to mention you won’t learn anything from it. I find the Thelemic motto, “Love is the Law. Love under Will.” to be a very useful mantra/mnemonic. If, on the other hand, we become absorbed in stroking our own egos for our supposed innate virtue, we will stray from the path faster than you can say “lightworker.” Fortunately, the very things that make you a better magician–meditation, solitude, exploring your shadows with compassion but also with discipline–will make you a better, and happier, person too.

*The example comes from The Science of Evil – on Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen.


3 thoughts on “Empathy and ethics

  1. I have to say thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. A lot of my current and past struggles note make prefect sense to me. I have recently turned off my”empathy”behavior as a way to protect myself. I have not felt whole and I didn’t really know how to go forward with the Great Work feeling this way. There are some gray suggestions here that I will try to apply. Especially the mantra.


    1. I’m glad you liked it! My own experience has not been that empathy is greatly lauded (except among those who self-identify as empaths), but more often is put down as a personal failing, being “too sensitive,” “over-emotional,” or “weak.” Empathy and capitalism are not a good fit and I’m sure your own experience tells you which of them tends to win.

      But clair-empathy or clairsentience or whatever has always been around and I think we in the West need to take it both more and less seriously (which is also my opinion on sex…possibly not a coincidence). On the one hand, it could be that sociopaths and empaths are opposite extremes on a bell-curve of empathy, and that each extreme has its strengths and weaknesses given the context. In that sense, it’s not something to stroke our egos about. On the other hand, there are a lot of damaged little kids in grown-up bodies trying to deal with a lot of cognitive dissonance, resulting in varying degrees of numbness or neurosis. I think the first thing we need to do is embrace it as normal (at least, as normal as any other clair- ability). For as much as this “gift” has gotten me beaten up (literally and figuratively), I’m pretty sure it has saved my life on occasion and certainly kept me out of some sticky situations.

      Anyway, thanks for reading!


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