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The virtue of empathy?

March 5, 2012

You’ve had a wretched day at work, and things aren’t so hot at home, either. You unload to your best friend or the stranger standing next to you in line, and your confidante responds, “I know how you feel.” Ah, you think, a little empathy at last.

Generally speaking, we think of empathy as a good thing—a little bit like sympathy, a little like compassion–overall, something to strive for. But that “folk concept” of empathy, as Richard Miller calls it, is far too one-dimensional. “Empathy,” he says, “is a complex phenomenon. I would call it promiscuous. It’s not a single emotion, it refers to one’s responses to others’ emotions.”

Miller, professor of religious studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, is principal investigator for an interdisciplinary project called “Virtuous Empathy: Scientific and Humanistic Perspectives.” Sponsored by IU’s Poynter for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, which Miller directs, the project received funding from the Arete Initiative at the University of Chicago and the John Templeton Foundation, as part of a larger $3 million research effort called the New Science of Virtues.

The IU Bloomington project winds up in this spring after two years of seminars, speakers, brown-bag lunches, and an international symposium in November 2011, all focused, Miller says, on the “interrogation” of empathy.

Miller credits John Bodnar, Chancellor’s Professor of history and director of the Institute for Advanced Study at IU Bloomington, with the initial idea to examine the topic of empathy. Other IU Bloomington participants joined from the fields of cognitive science, education, Germanic studies, philosophy, psychology, and religious studies.

The interdisciplinary study of the topic has been one of the virtuous empathy project’s greatest strengths, says Miller. “It was a very interesting learning experience. Our work together really helped sort out different concepts of empathy, which required some pretty careful, discriminating thought.”

What sort of different concepts? For one thing, the researchers have looked in depth at empathy’s dark side. “One can be empathic in order to gain a competitive advantage,” Miller points out. The ability to know and understand how another person is feeling can be used toward manipulative ends–think sales pitches, advertising, or political rhetoric.

There is clearly such a thing as undesirable empathy, Miller says. Envy and spite can be born of empathy, and “a torturer or sadomasochist can be empathic in that they respond to other’s feelings.”

In other words, empathy is no panacea. According to Miller, throughout their study, project participants have “gotten a more granular, finely grained account of what empathy is, and we’ve worked out a set of distinctions that enable us to grasp when empathy is problematic and when it is not.”

So when is empathy a virtue? It depends, Miller says. “Empathy as a virtue is dependent on other virtues. It can’t stand alone; it’s insufficient. It needs to be informed and disciplined by other virtues such equity, judgment, and fairness.”

As the Virtuous Empathy project draws to a close, the IU Bloomington investigators are looking for new support to extend their explorations. Deeper understandings of how empathy works, how it can be taught, what its good and bad forms are, have applications in a wide range of areas, including politics, marketing and advertising, criminology, animal behavior, philanthropy, and more.

“Our group is very keen to continue, and we’ve got a lot of momentum now,” says Miller. He notes that out of the 19 projects funded by the New Science of Virtues initiative, the IU Bloomington effort was “the most ambitiously collaborative.” The active participation of faculty from across the humanities and sciences disciplines is true hallmark of the IU Bloomington campus, Miller says.

“I’m always reminded about how departments and disciplines at other institutions can be silo-ed off from each other. Our interdisciplinary conversation really put us ahead of the curve. IU Bloomington has great potential for this kind of collaboration; we benefit from our campus culture; there’s no question about it.

For more on the Virtuous Empathy project, see http://poynter.indiana.edu/empathy.shtml.

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