Empathy, the sharing of feelings with another person and consequently caring about them, is typically a virtue in our society. ‘I hear you’ and ‘I feel your pain’ are said with a sense of compassion and concern for the welfare of others. We embrace the ‘Golden Rule’ to treat others as we would want to be treated. And when we feel empathy, we are inclined to do good things. One of the leading psychology scholars on empathy, C Daniel Batson, points out that, although definitions of empathy vary, all share the view that empathy is a process through which we experience and understand the feelings of others, and that can move us to respond in considerate and concerned ways.
Caring about others is a good thing. So, it should make sense to use empathy as a guide for how we live our social lives, and even incorporate it into how to govern our societies. Some worry that those in power lack empathy (typified by the expression ‘Let them eat cake’ that was allegedly spoken by Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, in response to the news that the peasants were starving and had no bread). There is a logic to presuming that using empathy should play an important role in personal, social and political lives alike. The challenge is that empathy is not that simple.