14. For Symmetry

Shame, pity and guilt in public policy

There are numerous cases where you want someone to feel as you do, where you want them to feel empathetic toward you. Adam Smith’s calm friend might want his agitated buddy to catch some of his calmness. Other examples range from the religious (If only you could know, as I do, what it’s like to be loved by God), to sexual (I wish you could know how good that feels), to the mundane (Dude, you just have to try these tacos — they’re awesome!).

It’s not all positive feelings, though. Often we want others to feel our pain. After all, we know that feeling empathy for an individual makes you more likely to help them. So if I’m suffering and I want your help, I can try to evoke your empathy. There is some risk here, though. You have to hit a sweet spot because too much empathy can be paralyzing. Someone who might otherwise have helped me feel my pain, might find it too much to bear, and walk away.

There is another, very different reason to want others to feel your pain. When people who are wronged describe their feelings towards those who harmed them, they often say that they want them to suffer, but sometimes they say something more precise -they want the wrongdoer to feel the same pain as the victim.

In On Apology, Aaron Lazare offers a similar sentiment: “what makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended. By apologizing, you take the shame of your offence and redirect it to yourself”.

Why an “exchange” of shame? It’s unsatisfying having someone who has victimised you feel no pain at all, but it’s also not enough for that person to feel pain of a sort that’s unrelated to the victimization -ideally, the sexual harasser should feel what it’s like to be the victim of sexual harassment. If he suffers because his child falls ill or his house burns down, it might be satisfying, but it’s not quite the same.

Empathy allows for a perfect eye-for-an-eye correspondence, where the perpetrator experiences the very same suffering as the victim.

Why is this symmetry so important? One consideration is the connection between understand and experience. The victim might believe both that a sincere apology requires the perpetrator understanding what he or she did wrong …. and that truly understanding what one did wrong requires having the experience yourself.

Then there is the wish to restore balance. An apology involves an acknowledgment that it is acceptable to harm someone without just cause. For this to work, it has to be somehow costly; you need to know that the person means it, so some suffering is needed. Empathy allows for a perfect eye-for-an-eye correspondence, where the perpetrator experiences the very same suffering as the victim.

Paul Bloom is Professor of Psychology at Yale. This is an extract from his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion currently available in all good bookshops.

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