The Breadth of Empathy

When Peter Singer describes empathy in his book The Most Good You Can Do, he explains that there are four separate parts that make up empathy, and that those four parts come together to form two separate categories of empathy. The different aspects of empathy manifest in their own way as we react to others and have different experiences related to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others.

 

The first of the two larger categories of empathy, according to Singer, is emotional empathy. “Emotional empathy is, in most situations, a good thing, but it is usually at its strongest when we can identify and relate to an individual,” Singer writes.  He describes this type of empathy as our emotional responses to the thoughts and feelings of others. Emotional empathy, he explains, covers empathetic concern and personal distress, two pieces of empathy that mesh our emotional experiences with that of others.  It is our ability to feel compassion and concern for others and their experiences, and our ability to experience the same feelings of unease and discomfort when we are with or speaking to an individual who is going through a challenging period.  It is the mirroring of the emotions of others, and our emotional urge to assist those in need.

 

Our second category of empathy, as explained by Singer, is what he calls cognitive empathy. While emotional empathy involves the way we feel about others, cognitive empathy involves the way we rationally think about the lives, thoughts, and experiences of others.  Wrapped up in cognitive empathy is perspective taking and fantasy, the former referring to our ability to adopt the point of view of others, and the latter referring to our ability to imagine ourselves going through the same experiences of others. Cognitive empathy helps us see the challenges that many people face, but it does not always help us truly feel the urge to act. Singer writes, “We can have cognitive empathy with thousands of children, but it is very hard to feel emotional empathy for so many people whom we cannot even identify as individuals.” What Singer is explaining is that we may recognize that others do not have water or access to food, but it is hard for us to truly understand what life is like in those circumstances. We may also be dwarfed by the number of individuals who need our assistance, leading us to feel as though we cannot have an impact since we cannot help them all.

 

Throughout his book Singer argues that the world needs to find a better way to make use of cognitive empathy to change the world. Most people tend to be warm glow givers, or those who donate impulsively to causes that are emotionally charged. Few people can truly bring themselves to make a donation or work for a cause that will help unidentifiable individuals in another country.  Unfortunately, it is those who we cannot see who we can often impact the most. Understanding that empathy can manifest in multiple manners will help us understand how to better connect with those around us, and those living in the world beyond the close boarders in which we typically think and interact.  Singer encourages us to recognize and use both types of empathy to have a greater impact on this planet, and to maximize the decisions we make.  Combining our cognitive with our emotional empathy can help us reach a greater level of catharsis by acting deliberately to use our resources and ability to help those who truly need it the most.
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