Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion

Over the past week in response to posts and articles I have written, several people have reposted questioning my lack of empathy and sympathy and in one such post stating my hypocrisy in my claims of faith because of my lack of empathy. I believe a response is required, but before moving forward, defining the meaning of words is necessary: The words, empathy, sympathy, and compassion are oftentimes used interchangeably but they are not synonymous.

Empathy means that you feel what another is feeling—it requires that you have previously been placed in similar circumstances. Sympathy means that you can intellectually understand what another is feeling. Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another. It requires participation by the giver of compassion with the receiver of compassion.

Conservatives are oftentimes accused of lacking empathy and sympathy. I would argue that neither of those ideas are sufficient to relieve the suffering of others. They must be combined with an action and it is compassion that we are called on based on the example of our faith. Empathy is a requirement for compassion but in and of itself it is not virtuous. Compassion is a virtue. One other aspect of compassion that is important is that it proceeds without fanfare. In Mark when Jesus heals the deaf man, what does he do? He first takes the patient away from the crowd into a private setting before he does the healing. This shows his empathy for the man, but it is the healing that shows his compassion.

Theological writings especially in the Catholic literature of “Social Justice” dating back to the 1870’s use the words empathy and sympathy frequently. But the words are never used in the New Testament—ever. Why this shift in language and why was it most pronounced after the social justice movement? Many have contested translations of Aquinas and Augustine regarding these words, but understanding their true translations is paramount in understanding the Church Fathers.

The reason I believe the social justice movement both in the secular and sectarian sense have embraced these meanings is because they have separated the feelings from the action. When one does this there can be a separate agent for action—most often the government. This then leads down the path to a system of economic redistribution. So a social activist, politician, or government bureaucrat can feel good about taking care of those on the margins, when the fruits of other people’s labor are what are being used in the transaction between the giver and receiver. This is the essence of the social justice movement.

Not to get “wonky” but it in fact “securitizes” the act of charity and giving and helping others. It addresses the issue of empathy and sympathy without requiring an act of compassion. Charity is an act between giver and receiver to which God is a party—”What you do to the least of my brethren you do unto me”. There is no such thing as government charity. Maybe feelings of individual empathy and sympathy can be discharged but the responsibility of compassion is not.

The great conceit of social justice and other socialist philosophies is that they don’t understand or address the issues of “intrinsic evil” Utopian philosophies that believe government can be the means of lifting people out of material and spiritual poverty never have worked in the history of man. Only by facilitating individual liberty and by individuals being allowed to act on the basis of their own “free will” can the plight of individuals be improved and in so doing societies will be made better. Individual accountability and responsibility, not coercion, are what lead to better families, tribes, countries, and the world.

Compassion cannot be coerced. Compassion cannot be communalized. Compassion cannot be securitized.

Not recognizing that compassion requires individual action takes away the individual responsibility to act. All we are left with are empathy and sympathy and when people need help, an action is required.