What is empathy?

I see discussions about empathy or lack thereof rather often on autism forums.  There is a lot of debate around the issue, which I definitely want to opine about at some point.  Before I can do that, though, I have to opine about the fact that empathy is, in fact, an extremely poorly defined word.  This makes discussions about empathy very messy, because very often what Person A means is not what Person B hears, because they are thinking of the words in different ways.

So what does empathy mean, anyway?  I have heard it used to mean an ability to care about other people.  Some people say that it means the ability to feel what other people are feeling.  Yet other people say it means the ability to determine what other people are feeling.  An article I just now read here said empathy is “acknowledging the patient’s emotional state” and contrasted it to sympathy, which was “feeling the emotion that the patient feels.”  The dictionary says “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another” which is astoundingly broad.

Let’s say a person says “ASD people do not have empathy.”  One person might hear “ASD people have difficult determining what other people are feeling.”  Another person might hear “ASD people do not feel what other people feel.”  Yet another person might hear “ASD people do not care about others.”  How can we possibly have a rational discussion on empathy if we are not clear about our terms?

There are some people taking steps to be more precise on the matter.  For instance, some people are using words like “cognitive empathy” and “affective empathy” which is definitely a step in the right direction.  Unfortunately, I have already started seeing multiple ways those phrases are being defined, which seems to take us back to step one.

Ultimately, my desire is for people to be more precise in their language.  Of course, I always tend to desire this, but I think with things like ’empathy’ or other incredibly vague words, the need for precision and clarity becomes much more pronounced.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “What is empathy?

  1. Neeneko

    This almost strikes me as a good place to use the RFC style of defining words explicitly at the top of a document.. ‘for the purposes of this discussion ’empathy’ will refer specificity to XYZ’

    • gothic_feline

      Now that would be fabulous. Of course, it would still be tricky in discussions, but it might be a good habit to try to adopt.