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Empathy, sympathy and solidarity



The fact that people care about the interests of others too little makes the world worse. This is true of all of us – who hasn’t acted selfishly, when it would have been better to be generous? – but it is especially true of people with power. They have the ability to affect the lives of many others. If they care too little about those others, they will enact policies that cause them unnecessary suffering.

Some hoped that Donald Trump’s recent brush with Covid-19 would lead him to care more about other victims of the disease. The idea was that once Trump had experienced the virus, he would be more able to understand the suffering of others who have it (or who might have it in the future if he does not change his policies). He would have acquired empathy – the ability to imagine their situation – and this might lead to sympathy – sharing and being affected by their suffering. As the 18th century philosopher David Hume described the process:


“We have a lively idea of every thing related to us. All human creatures are related by resemblance. Their persons, therefore, their interests, their passions, their pains and their pleasures must strike upon us in a lively manner, and produce an emotion similar to the original one… If this be true in general, it must be more so of affliction and sorrow. These have always a stronger and more lasting influence than any pleasure or enjoyment.”


Although ‘all human creatures’ resemble us in some ways, we are more able to find sympathy with those who resemble us more:


“The stronger the relation betwixt ourselves and any object, the more easily does the imagination make the transition, and convey the related idea the vivacity of conception…”


Thus, we might think, now that Trump has more in common with the victims of coronavirus, he should be able to imagine their situation better, and their suffering should affect him more. Sympathy through empathy.

It does not seem that this has happened. Trump has not re-evaluated his policies on coronavirus with renewed vigour and compassion. He appears not to care very much about other people contracting the virus: including his own supporters. Similar (non-)effects have been observed from the infections of Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro. I want to suggest that this is because of limits in the process leading from empathy to sympathy.

Although every human bears some resemblance to every other one, each of us is unique. At some point the similarities between ourselves and others end. This is true not just of our bodies and our personalities, but also to our experiences. No two experiences of coronavirus, for instance, are exactly the same. Trump’s experience of coronavirus was very different from most people’s: he had bespoke medical treatment, he was under the gaze of the international media, and so on. So, how strong was the relation between his suffering coronavirus and the suffering of other victims, really? How easily could he imagine being in their place? Consequently, how ‘lively’ would their pains appear to him?

Trump seems to think that he is special. Therefore, it would be very easy for him to believe that his experience was different from those of others (because it was the experience of a special person, and theirs were the experiences of ordinary people), and very difficult for him to properly imagine himself in their place. But Trump’s belief in his specialness, whilst grotesquely exaggerated, is not wholly false. Each of us, as I noted, is unique. Moreover, we ought to recognise that each of us has different experiences, and that it isn’t always possible for us to think ourselves into other people’s situations. This has been recognised by movements that ask (for instance) men to listen to the experiences of women, on the grounds that they could never themselves understand what it is like to be a victim of sexism. (It is also recognised, in relation to class, by the Pulp song, ‘Common People’.)

Given that our experiences are never exactly the same, our empathy will only ever be partial: we cannot fully imagine the situations of others. If we recognise this, we may end up like Trump, unable to empathise, and therefore to sympathise, with other we consider so different to us. But if we fail to recognise it, we risk neglecting the important fact that others are able to experience and understand things (such as sexism) that we are not.

There is another problem. Empathy is not only partial in the sense of ‘not complete’, it is also partial in the sense of ‘biased’. If sympathy derives from empathy, which derives as Hume says from resemblance, our sympathy will be greater with those we resemble more. Sometimes we want this to be the case: we want Trump to have more sympathy for those he resembles in having suffered from coronavirus. But sometimes we don’t: we don’t want Trump to have more sympathy for those he resembles in being white. Hume (whose own racist views are the subject of recent controversy) acknowledges that we do tend to show more sympathy for those to whom we are related by blood and by country.


We need a means of getting sympathy that does not rely on empathy – which could only ever be incomplete and biased. The solution, I think, lies in what left-wing movements have typically called ‘solidarity’. One can have solidarity with another person without being able to put oneself in their shoes, and without resembling them. This is why solidarity is often said to hold ‘between’ different groups (solidarity between black and white people, or between students and workers, for instance), and to apply internationally (the leading advocates for Palestine and Cuba in the UK are called ‘solidarity campaigns’).

Solidarity is an alternative route to sympathy. Unlike the empathy route, it does not depend on resemblance, and so can be complete and unbiased. It also involves a leap of faith. To be affected by the suffering of another who is different to you, and suffers in ways you cannot fully understand, is to take them on their own terms: to trust, without evidence, that their suffering is just as real as yours. Such trust in others is vital. It is sympathy through solidarity, and not through empathy, that we should wish for our leaders and ourselves.

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