Compassionate Communication: Bridging the Gap between the Abled and Disabled

Abstract — Far too often, the way people speak and act toward individuals with disabilities is demeaning. Originated from a lack of understanding and communication, attitudes and assumptions contribute to a separation of those who are abled and those who are disabled. Without recognizing that anyone can become disabled in the blink of an eye, the first reaction is to sympathize, help or fix. However, helping is seeing someone as weak, and fixing is seeing someone as broken. It is with compassion that we are seen as whole. Through a philosophical framework, this research paper reflects on the terms sympathy, empathy, and compassion, where empathy is more effective than sympathy, but compassion flourishes. By understanding the difference between these terms and developing an awareness of this separation, may we all be more influential leaders supporting a consciousness that affects a more equitable society.

Introduction While some statistics may differ, the most recent United States Census Bureau survey (2015) estimates that approximately fifty-seven million noninstitutionalized Americans live with some type of impairment that makes them disabled. Such impairments include cerebral palsy, vision and hearing impairments, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injuries, and intellectual disabilities. It is important to first and foremost understand that people are not their disabilities. Furthermore, a disability is not a person’s impairment, rather a social issue that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines as “having long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others” (The United Nations Art. 1). The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) holds the philosophy that society is the main contributing constituent in immobilizing individuals with impairments.While such impairments may be a cause for limitations, these are not at the forefront of disabilities; rather society fails to take into account such impairments, thus promoting a disconnection between the able and the disabled. 
 Arguably, one of the biggest obstacles individuals who are disabled come by is the way they are perceived by society. Social attitudes commonly reflect individuals with impairments as defective, incapable, and broken. Labeling individuals with such disdain disempowers them and fails to challenge their strengths and abilities, while holding them back from reaching their full potential. Initial responses are, at worst, to have nothing to do with them, but are otherwise to help or fix them. Rachel Remen introduces the concept of helping, fixing, serving, where she says that “Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole” (Remen 1). She explains how helping is based on inequalities and when one helps, they are doing so at a distance. By helping, we see another person as weaker, or incompetent, and “diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity, and wholeness” (Remen 1). Similarly, fixing creates distance where we see another person as broken, and as a form of judgement, separates us from one another. Society enables a separation and disabilities become handicaps when accessibility is denied. For example, wheelchair access to public transportation or buildings. Society’s handicaps, alongside people’s lack of education on disabilities, and feeling uncomfortable, contributes to a disconnect and an insufficient recognition that people with disabilities are capable of being a part of society just like anyone else. Therefore, instead of seeing an individual with a disability as weak or broken, we should see them as whole individuals, make an effort to understand, and serve them with that same wholeness in ourselves. 
Society’s promotion of disconnection between the abled and the disabled has a great influence on the way we communicate with one another. It is true that there are common communication barriers that may occur, like someone with visual, auditory, or processing impairments, but there are many resources that can assist in adapting to these hurdles. The main issue is the way in which someone who is able speaks to another who is disabled. It is said that while only fifty-five percent of communication is nonverbal body language, the other forty-five percent is through words used and tone of voice. Tone of voice and verbal choices affect an individual’s perception and understanding, and can interrupt the power dynamic that creates a dissociation between one another. 
I work with adults with developmental disabilities, with the goal to enhance their quality of life through many aspects that make us contributing members of society, and everyday I see how communication affects an inequality that separates the abled from the disabled. For example, far too often I witness tone of voice being used in an authoritative way that is intimidating and overpowering; interrupting a power dynamic that neglects an individual’s potential to make their own decisions and ignores their emotions, making them vulnerable. Another example is the assumption that everyone understands the same way. People have different disabilities; some may even be hidden. Speaking to everyone on an equal level limits comprehension. Being conscious of individual needs, and responding to individuals on their own level of awareness, cultivates dignity and respect. Anyone can become disabled in the blink of an eye and to promote acceptance and awareness, we must put ourselves in the shoes of those we interact with, and treat them the way we would want to be treated. When relating to another person’s hardships, the terms sympathy, empathy, and compassion are often used interchangeably. As relative terms that imply the consideration of and caring for another person, understanding the distinction between and applying them can mean all the difference when communicating with individuals with disabilities. Nevertheless, defining sympathy, empathy, and compassion is complex. You can’t just take a dictionary definition and say “this is what it is,” but Dr. Berteaux, philosophy professor at California State University Monterey Bay, says that “whichever definition you chose makes a huge political and moral difference” (Berteaux). Even in the discipline of philosophy, sympathy, empathy, and compassion have been contested concepts. Nevertheless, philosophy s a way of knowing; perspectives that can influence our own ethical principles, and by reflecting on each concept, through the views of philosophers dating back to the fifteenth century, can we conclude compassion as the most effective approach to communicating; essentially bridging the gap between the abled and the disabled. 
Traditional Moral Theories
 In the context of philosophy, many theorists have conceptualized moral theories based on individuals as rational beings, and established principles based on a notion that neglects such groups as those with disabilities. Identified as non-rational beings, individuals with disabilities were traditionally considered worthless and invaluable to society. For instance, Kantian Ethics insists that right and wrong is determined by rationality, and moral worth is based on universal duty. It says that you ‘ought’ to do your duty simply because it is your duty and this duty is guided by reason. Other theories, such as Virtue Ethics, states that right and wrong is characterized in terms of acting in accordance with traditional virtues (wisdom, honesty, justice), and the ultimate end of human action is happiness. That happiness consists of acting in accordance with reason, which is the distinguishing quality of all traditional virtues. Essentially, if you are the right person then you will do the right thing when the time calls for it. For Utilitarianism, unlike the others, there is no action intrinsically right or wrong, and no person’s preferences or interests carry a greater weight than any other person. Utilitarianism is consequence driven and says to find the greatest good, that which creates the most happiness, and maximize that good. Lastly, Feminist Ethics takes a different approach and critiques traditional moral theories for being one-sided, individualistic, and male-centered. It says that traditional theories are inaccurate, because they fail to include women, who are seen as irrational beings. What is right and wrong for feminist theorists is to be found through women’s response to the relationship of caring. Feminist Ethics argues that we need to consider the self as at least partly constructed by social relations, and morality is thus grounded in emotions such as love and sympathy. 
Derived from the Greek word sympatheia; syn “together” and pathos “feeling,” means “fellow-feeling,” or literally the “state of being affected together” (Schliesser 1). Today defining the expression sympathy is ambiguous. Merriam-Webster dictionary has eight different ways of interpreting the word sympathy that essentially translates into the feeling of sorrow or pity for; feeling sorry for another person’s suffering, grief, problems, misfortunes, etc.. Tracing the philosophical concept throughout history is complicated, however, once banished as an occult quality, sympathy was described by Plato as a “specific natural phenomena, such as the involuntary desire to yawn when someone else yawns, to urinate when standing near water, as well as to suffer mentally when we see someone else suffering pain” (Schliesser 3,4). As I speak about sympathy as a form of suffering, I wish to clarify that I do not see those with disabilities as suffering. Suffering has a negative connotation to it that supposes another is miserable. Although some may argue this belief, I believe that an impairment allows us to see the world differently, and we are not suffering. However, many philosophers since Plato have explored the concept of sympathy to illustrate specific moral behaviors. While Immanuel Kant establishes morality based on duty, he refers to sympathy as an indirect duty. He says that sympathy allows us to better understand other’s needs, helps us communicate concerns, and acts as an additional incentive to help others. However, sympathy is acquired with respect to moral law, and sympathetic actions have to be morally permissible. 
David Hume and Adam Smith, argue that sympathy is not only permissible, it is fundamental to moral thought and practices. Hume, who grounds his moral philosophy on feelings, argues that we are more influenced by feelings than we are by, what other moral theories would say as, reason. Hume defines the ability to sympathize as sharing feeling, and the actions of our sentiments are morally approved or disapproved depending on sympathy. In his book Treatise of Human Nature, Hume illustrates this by saying:
A good-natur’d man finds himself in an instant of the same humour with his company; and even the proudest and most surly take a tincture from their countrymen and acquaintances. A cheerful countenance infuses a sensible complacency and serenity into my mind; as an angry or sorrowful one throws a sudden damp upon me. Hatred, resentment, esteem, love, courage, mirth and melancholy; all these passions I feel more from communication than from my own natural temper and disposition” (Hume 317). 
Adam Smith furthers Hume’s theory more intricately by grounding his moral philosophy in sympathy, combined with a concept of empathy; which he defined as an emotional interconnectedness felt with other human beings with the evaluation and judgment of individual behaviours in specific situations. He claims that our decisions and preferences are based on our own self-interest. By self-interest, Smith interprets as the notion of sympathy and empathy; being the “fellow-feeling” with others who matter to us, or even for the sake of a smile received by a stranger. To emphasize this concept, Smith develops the idea of a spectator — an observer of others and self. When noticing another’s actions, part of the observer is judging that action based on the observer’s own sense of what is morally right and wrong. For both Hume and Smith, sympathy engages us with positive and negative feelings for others that explains the nature of moral judgment, and our capacity to approve or disapprove of another’s, or our own, moral behaviors. In his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith suggests that our “first moral sentiments are concerned with the actions of other people. Each of us judges as a spector and finds himself judged by spectators” (Smith 15). Furthermore, we cannot experience what another is feeling, or how they are affected by a situation unless we can conceive what we ourselves would feel in the same situation. People convey sympathy by attending to emotions felt by themselves as well as others, and their situations. 
With today’s notion of sympathy being to feel sorry for or pity for, verbal communication is one of the most common methods by which individuals communicate sentiments of sympathy. Other forms used can include trying to help or fix someone who is viewed as broken, or by the gesture of a condoling touch. For example, someone who walks into a room and sees a person who is blind may put their hand on the individual’s shoulder and ask if they are alright. This may not sound like a sympathetic statement, however, tone of voice and body language play a very important role in conveying a statement of pity. Hume upholds that people can be moved by sympathy for others, which provide them with non-selfish concerns and motivations. However, communicating with sympathy fails to place the spectator on the same level of someone who is disabled; as though being spoken down to rather than at or with. Sympathy, today, is seeing someone as weak or broken and establishes a disconnect in relations. Yet, “the word sympathy itself as used by Hume and Smith include the communicability of affect and emotional contagion, which today we would also count as inputs to empathy” (Agosta 3). Both Hume and Smith define sympathy in terms of how we would define empathy today. 
 Empathy has come to be used in a more broad way than it was when it first emerged in the lexicon. Derived originally from the German word Einfühlung, and later given the Greek translation empatheia, literally means “in-feeling.” While it’s origins was originally intended to explain reactions to aesthetic experiences, it later became known as the “process of humanizing objects, of reading or feeling ourselves into them,” for which the core concept was “going into a strong feeling-connection with another” (Meneses 152). An interpersonal phenomena like that of sympathy, empathy is ambiguous and contingent. Where sympathy is feeling sorrow or pity for another’s situation, it lacks understanding and association. Empathy is what Brené Brown describes as a connection. She illustrates the distinction between these two terms by saying; 
“Empathy is fueling connection, whereas sympathy drives connection.There are four qualities to empathy; (1)perspective taking — the ability to take the perspective of another person, or recognize their perspective as their truth. (2)Staying out of judgment. (3)Recognizing emotion in other people, and (4)communicating that. Empathy is feeling with people. I always think of empathy as this sacred space, when someone’s in a deep hole and they shout out from the bottom, “I’m stuck, It’s dark, and I’m overwhelmed.” And then we look and we say “Hey!” and climb down. “I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone. Sympathy is “Ooh! It’s bad, uh huh. Uh…No. You want a sandwich?” Empathy is a choice and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling” (Brown).
Although Brown gives a fairly descriptive notion of empathy, it’s meaning has been debated overtime and in many different ways; primarily in the field of psychology. However, Edith Stein, who participated in the academics of psychology and philosophy before her death at Auschwitz, interprets empathy as an “intuitive understanding” of experience. Predominantly categorized into two forms, empathy can be cognitive — an intentional perspective-taking, the ability to recognize and understand other’s emotions, or affective — the automatic feeling and perception in response to another person’s emotions. For example, affective empathy occurs when one witnesses another person feel fear, anger, happiness, joy, etc.. It’s the automatic response to another person’s emotions. This type of empathy can be both good or bad. Good in that it means there is an understanding felt for other’s emotions, and bad because it is possible for emotions to become overwhelming. Cognitive empathy is the intention to place oneself in the shoes of another person without necessarily becoming involved with their emotions. Stein rejects these concepts of empathy, instead suggesting that empathy is a way of knowing another person’s experience; “The ability is present from infancy, when already “I am able to see meaning, intention, and emotions in the actions of others”(Meneses 157). Stein asserts that empathy is actually a means to acquiring knowledge, rather than a response or reaction, of another’s experiences. Although other theorists, such as Theodor Lipps, would argue that empathy involves a response or reaction to personal distress and emotional contagion, Stein maintains that it is not the response or reaction that makes a person empathetic. Instead, what makes someone empathetic is an understanding. She illustrates this by explaining that people are integrated, minded, and embedded in the world, and the world is essentially “objectively ‘out-there’ to be perceived in the sense that it is not merely a subjective representation inside the mind. People relate to the world by means of an intentional act of consciousness…consciousness is always intentional — it connects a self to an object, in consciousness — and it is always relational” (Meneses 162). Furthermore, there is always two perspectives involved with an interpersonal affair, the empathizer identifying with the empathized. 
 Correspondingly, empathy today is acknowledged as the recognition and understanding of another person’s experience, situation, feeling or perspective, but also the idea of putting oneself in another’s shoes. However, empathy is almost nonexistent in today’s individualistic society. In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Dr. Temple Grandin, well known for establishing more human treatment of animals in slaughterhouses, and one of the most famous individuals with autism, is quoted as saying that “Normal people have an incredible lack of empathy. They have good emotional empathy, but they don’t have much empathy for the autistic kid who is screaming at the baseball game because he can’t stand the sensory overload. Or the autistic kid having a meltdown in the school cafeteria because there’s too much stimulation” (Grandin). As mentioned earlier, affective (emotional) empathy is automatic, however, cognitive empathy is intentional, and what lacks most when interacting with individuals with disabilities is cognitive empathy. 
To demonstrate empathy, a young man who has anger issues is set off by something as simple as being told he cannot do something he was looking forward to doing. In response, he has behaviors that include throwing things and punching things. His presence is not safe for others around him, but once removed from the general area, all he wants to do is talk to someone. He talks about how he gets angry so easily, and when he does it makes him do bad things. He is the empathized and I am the empathizer. I don’t have to respond to him because all he wants is someone to listen to him, but I choose to respond. However instead of making statements like “poor you,” or “you can’t do that anymore,” I give him something he can relate to. I tell him a story about how I was injured at my previous job. 
“I lost my job a few years back and was unable to work anymore or play softball like I had done several times a week. I became angry at everything, especially the fact that I could not play my favorite sport, or do the job I loved so much. Today, I cannot run or lift, or play sports anymore, but afterwards I was so angry that I started drinking. I drank so much that friends of mine became worried about me, and one day a friend sat me down and suggested I talk to someone about my anger; and I did. I don’t have anger issues so much anymore.” 
And I left it at that. By responding in a way that showed him I could relate to his anger, and not being able to do things, I showed him that I understand his perspective, and that there are other ways to handle circumstances. However, most importantly, I showed him that he was not alone. “Empathy is essential to moral life, because it establishes a connection with other human beings. That is what makes a difference; that we do not suffer alone” (Whittaker). 
Be that as it may, empathy doesn’t mean that you have to agree with or share the same feelings with someone else; it only means that you understand and can see someone else’s perspective, and it doesn’t require anything more than listening empathetically and responding empathetically. Empathic dialogue is significant, because it encourages a connection that lets someone else know you care and you support them. Likewise, through the act of empathy, we can become more aware of what type of person we are, and what it is we actually value. Nevertheless, there are limitations to empathy. One can experience empathy fatigue as they take on too much emotion and neglect their own emotions and needs. Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean one will want to assist, or needs to assist someone when needed, although it is an essential first step towards compassionate. Being able to recognize and understand another person’s impairment, and put yourself in their shoes is important in repairing the disconnect between the abled and disabled. However, it is not all that needs to be done to bridge the gap of inequality. I can easily walk by someone who has an impairment and be sympathetic or empathetic, but it doesn’t change the stigma unless I do something about it. 
“Boundless compassion for all living things is the finest and surest guarantee of pure moral conduct, and needs no causistry. Whoever is inspired with it will assuredly injure no one, will encroach on no one’s rights; on the contrary, he will help everyone as much as he can, and all his actions will bear the stamp of justice, philanthropy, and loving-kindness.” — Arthur Schopenhauer; On the Basis of Morality. 
Compassion, Latin for “co-suffering,” is traditionally known as a synonym for sympathy. However, sympathy is feeling sorrow or pity for another person’s hardships, misery, or misfortunes. Compassion, on the other hand, is defined as a “sympathetic consciousness” of another person’s distress with the added element being a desire to alleviate that distress. Compassion, like empathy, involves intent and is a relative term. Like sympathy and empathy, compassion is complex, in that most definitions do not encompass the passion behind the word. Today’s association captures two notions to compassion; first, the recognition of the suffering for another person, and second, a response or motivation to alleviate that suffering. Throughout the history of philosophy, not many speak of compassion as the basis of morality. However, for Arthur Schopenhauer, eighteenth century philosopher who was influenced by David Hume, it is compassion that is the basis for moral behavior, and only compassionate actions that are morally justified. He grounds his moral theory in intuitive compassion, for which he believes is a component of everyone’s character. While some people are overwhelmed by compassion, others have little to none; the difference is in the bifurcation of attitudes towards one another, and towards the world as a whole. Compassion for Schopenhauer is literally having a passion with another, and the incentive to seek the well-being of another. Seeing human beings as involved within a world of suffering, he recognize that we are all manifestations of the will to live. Therefore, it is the actions of compassion that give us moral worth. The easiest and truest way to attain moral worth is through what he proposes as, the essence of the golden rule; in which he describes as “do not do to another what you do not wish to be done to you” (Jacquette 221). 
 In his essay, On the Basis of Morality, Schopenhauer scrutinizes traditional moral theories for the lack of concern for individuals who face hardships. Schopenhauer’s moral principle is to “injure no one, on the contrary, help everyone as much as you can” (Leirer 22), through the actions of compassion; the incentive to seek the well-being of another, or alleviate their misery. He asserts that we are not obliged to sacrifice our own interests for the sake of others, but only to help whenever it is required and reasonable. Morality, is not a matter of what we ought to do, or about being rational. Instead, Schopenhauer believes being compassionate is about “seeing the world aright” (Janaway 73). 
 Schopenhauer justifies his reasoning that we are all, in one way or another, compassionate individuals by saying that “no one is distinct from anything else in the world, and so can recognize in another his own self, and his own true inner nature” (Janaway 83). Thus, we are capable of treating others the way we want to be treated. Compassion is about seeing ‘me’ in ‘you,’ and the shared commonality of feelings between one another. Anyone can become disabled in a split second. For instance, you are skiing down the slopes of your favorite mountain and hit your head running into a tree, or another person. Something happens and next thing you know, you are sitting in a wheelchair, unable to articulate your words appropriately or control the functions of your own body. You now have to rely on the assistance of other people to get through your day; to brush your hair, to take you to the bathroom, or even to make your own lunch.
 To comprehend the idea that anyone of us could become disabled at any given moment is what lacks in sympathy and empathy. Sympathizing today does not require a sense of seeing oneself in a similar situation. Sympathy, thus, is inferior to compassion. Likewise, there is no necessary concern for another person’s well-being with empathy. Moreover, some would claim that compassion lacks the emotion that empathy has and is only concerned with another person’s suffering. I am defining compassion to incorporate both sympathy and empathy as a blending of understanding and acceptance, because they work together to enhance knowledge, and are a influential to the concept of compassion. Compassion, is not only a recognition of a hardship, followed by an understanding of another person’s perspective, it adds a component of some form of action being taken. Furthermore, compassion encompasses the essence of the golden rule; treat others the way you want to be treated. In this sense, compassion cultivates connection, encourages equality, and recognizes everyone as valuable human beings. 
 Within traditional philosophical theories, moral behaviors are based on rationality and reason. However, for many theorists, all moral actions are a result of some form of human connection. For David Hume and Adam Smith, it was sympathy. For Edith Stein, it was empathy, and for Schopenhauer and myself, it is compassion that gives us moral worth. Hume asserts that moral judgments are derived from these fellow feelings. When we look at someone else’s actions, we make judgments based on how we would act ourselves, thus recognizing a common ground. Smith illustrates this by identifying moral sense with the imagination. He says “the sympathetic imagination provides the psychological mechanism of the golden rule. We do not steal from others because our imagination projects us into their advantage point. Into their minds, and we thus experience how it would feel to be a victim” (Smith 12). In order to be benevolent, we must tap into those feelings of commonality. If compassion is treating others the way we want to be treated, then we should see those who have impairments as similar to us. Instead of feeling sorry for others, because we lack an understanding, we should connect with the feelings of how we would feel in any given situation. 
 Schopenhauer writes that “standing out among the common throng of individuals in egoistic pursuit of selfish interests, there are also persons of genuine morality. These are individuals who mysteriously and unmotivatedly dedicate some part of their energy and resources to helping others for no other reason other than the fact that those persons are suffering and need someone to help” (Jacquette 220). It is not necessarily help that another person needs, rather it is to be understood and not discriminated for an impairment society fails to adapt to. We connect with other human beings to better understand the world around us, and to meet our basic human needs of protection, participation, affection, understanding, love, belonging, and identity. Our assumptions cloud our judgments about other people, which is why we sympathize and empathize for others hardships. Rather than sympathizing, given the current negative concept, we can better understand different perspectives by being empathetic. However, if we want to make a difference in the world and bridge the gap between the abled and disabled, we must grasp a better understanding of what makes us unique, and use compassionate communication. 
Communication is the process that is a reciprocated exchange of information, and is done through verbal and nonverbal dialogue, as well as active and authentic listening. Communication is sometimes difficult, but effective communication can be acquired. Even so, it starts with an awareness of self; a focus on our own well-being and knowing our own needs, values, and expectations. Without knowing yourself, we cannot be truly compassionate towards others. Adam smith wrote “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he drives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it” (Smith 9).
Certain ways of communicating alienate other people from our shared experience, and the more distant we are, the less empathetic and compassionate we can be. Compassionate communication cultivates relationships, meeting most of our basic needs. When we pay attention to the words we use and the way we use them, adjust our tone to fit our moment by moment experiences, speak directly to a person rather than an interpreter or companion, be patient and clear with intent, and recognize that we are all unique and valuable individuals doing our very best given our current level of awareness, can we bridge the gap between the abled and disabled. Effective communication is an essential element for success, and it is almost impossible to be a prominent leader without being a great communicator. Practicing an empathetic understanding, and compassionate dialogue for other human beings, understanding disabilities, and educating others is what makes us leaders in bridging the gap of inequality — inevitably making us leaders towards equity. Instead of intimidation, education. Instead of discrimination, communication.

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Without the eye-opening experience I have received at Hope Services, this project would 
not be possible. Additionally, there have been some amazing professors at CSUMB who have influenced me, encouraged me, and got me through some really tough times. For that, I would just like to say THANK YOU!! 
Although I have had some really influential people in my life, I could not have been able to follow my path if it weren’t for my amazing and supportive life partner, Windy Segretto. Baby, your encouragement, love, support, and late night conversations have contributed so much to making this possible. This paper is for you!