Rowan Williams – ‘Ethics and Empathy’

6th June, University of Winchester

Last week I had the privilege of attending a lecture at the University of Winchester, given by Rowan Williams. I had no previous knowledge of the subject matter but I went just to hear him speak on his title ‘Ethics and Empathy.’ I wasn’t disappointed as it was a very interesting lecture, which was more ethical philosophy than theology, although the lecture naturally led towards a theological sequel. I found an audio recording from the University of Cambridge website, which appears to be exactly the same lecture, so if you would like to listen to it this is the link.

I will summarise it in three brief sections. I will just say here in a word of evaluation that I found it quite convincing, and on hearing this side of the conversation, I couldn’t object to very much of what Williams said.

Empathy is more popular than it used to be

Williams began by saying that the topic of empathy is in vogue, and lots of people are talking about it. He cited numerous examples of people claiming that empathy is essential to moral development, that to empathise well is in effect to be moral. Empathy cannot oppress another. If you feel another’s pain and suffering, or their need, then you will inevitably help that person, or act in a moral fashion.

He particularly interacted with ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy’ author Simon Baron-Cohen, who claims that ‘evil is empathy corrosion.’

Williams – ‘This is wrong’

Williams then went on to say that he disagrees with these statements for various different reasons. The broad reason that he gave is that ethics is a linguistic and cultural phenomenon, encompassing power, politics, religious faith and so in. In short, ethics is much more than simply whether or not one is able to empathise, or, in response to Baron-Cohen, empathy erosion is not the whole story of evil. Consider issues concerning the distribution of power on a geopolitical level, for example, how will empathy help us with that?

Or think about the example of a Ugandan militia: the leader has two prisoners who are relatives, and he forces one to execute the other. In this case the militia leader is able to perpetrate greater evil precisely because he can empathise with the pain it will cause to the first prisoner to execute a family member. Empathy leads to more moral evil, not less.

Or The Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, who, precisely because he empathises with human beings’ sadness and grief at being free, will subjugate and enslave humanity. In the parable, the inquisitor is pictured as opposing a silent Christ-figure who, in contrast to the inquisitor, has come to bring freedom to mankind.

Edith Stein

Finally, Williams introduced us to Edith Stein, who wrote her PhD dissertation on empathy, to help us understand empathy better. For Stein, empathy is not about being able to feel exactly what another person feels. On the contrary, it is about a human being recognising his or her situatedness. That is, I am one person, who inhabits a particular perspective, and I do not understand what it is like to be another – not fully anyway. He gave the example of Cybil Faulty saying, ‘Oh I know,’ in response to the problems of others. The humour comes in that fact that she didn’t know, and that she was being insensitive to the person to whom she was speaking.

He summarised her definition of empathy as, ‘A failure to understand the limits of my point of view, resulting in two sets of knowing: an enhanced awareness of that environment and an indirect sense of some of what it might be like to experience the environment from that standpoint.’ In other words, empathy is less ‘I know,’ and more ‘I don’t know, but I can try to imagine, and that might give me an idea of what it might be like.’

I see where he is coming from when he says this, but I always thought that empathy meant that, in simple terms, you know how something feels, and so you can sympathise in a more direct way with the person who is experiencing that thing. I can’t empathise with what it feels like to give birth, but I could sympathise if I was in the delivery room with someone who was. I could empathise if I had given birth, because then I would know what it feels like, but I don’t, so I can’t.

Maybe I’m wrong about that, and my thinking needs readjusting. What do you think?


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