Empathy is understood metaphorically as the capacity to project your consciousness into other people so that you can feel what they feel. We can see this in the language of empathy: I know what it's like to be in your shoes. I know how you feel. I feel for you. Now we cannot literally project our consciousness into someone else's mind and body, which is why this notion of empathy is metaphorical. However, it is possible, if we work at it, to imagine being someone else. This is what we have to do, as best we can, if we want to act nurrurantly toward someone else. Empathy is the basis of a major conception of morality.
• Morality Is Empathy.
The logic of empathy is this: If you really feel what another person feels, and if you want to feel a sense of well-being, then you will want that person to experience a sense of well-being. Therefore, you will act so as to promote a sense of well-being in that person. To conceptualize moral action as fully empathetic action is more than just abiding by the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule does not take into account that others may have different values than you do. Taking morality as empathy requires basing your actions on their values, not yours. This requires a stronger Golden Rule: Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.
The strong Golden Rule is, however, not always applicable. Suppose you are a liberal attempting to empathize with a conservative, whose Strict Father views contradict the very kind of empathy you are trying to use. To adopt his values is to undermine any possible success at implementing your values. When the value system as a whole is at stake, the strong Golden Rule may yield a paradox. To obey it is not to obey it. When discussing values that are less than all-inclusive, the strong Golden Rule is not subject to such a paradox.
The very existence of the traditional weaker Golden Rule suggests that empathy comes in both stronger and weaker forms.
Absolute empathy is simply feeling as someone else feels, with no strings attached. But strings commonly are attached. The reason is that we cannot only project our capacity to feel onto someone else, but we can also project our values onto someone else. Many people can only project their capacity to feel onto someone else if they also project their values onto them. Let us call this egocentric empathy. In egocentric empathy, you project your capacity to feel onto another person, keeping your values. This yields a weak form of the Golden Rule, what might be called the Brass Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – but only if they share your values!
It is extremely important to distinguish egocentric empathy from absolute empathy plus moral instruction. Suppose you have a child and you want to teach that child your moral values. Suppose the child comes to reject some or all of those values, yet you still think it is important to try to teach them to him. Under egocentric empathy, you will not empathize with your child unless he adopts your values. Under absolute empathy with moral instruction, you will empathize with your child despite the difference of values – perhaps doing your best to understand his values – while still trying to get him to adopt your values. Both cases arise regularly in family life throughout the country and the difference is all-important.
Another type of empathy is affordable empathy. It is the ability of people who are relatively well-off to empathize with people who are less fortunate than they. The logic of affordable empathy is the Wooden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – providing you can afford it easily!
Charity, as it is all too often practiced in this country, combines moral accounting with affordable empathy. It is a way of accruing moral credit by giving something of positive value – typically money – to people who are less well-off than you when you can well afford it. Income tax deductions for charitable contributions are interesting in this light; they permit you to accrue real financial credit rather than mere moral credit.