Empathy and Attachment

Perhaps the best portrayal of empathy was published in 1759 by the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He said that our capacity to empathize with the whole range of feelings of others provides the basis for our development as morally sensitive human beings. This is because moral relationships are based upon sentiments - emotions and feelingful attitudes between people.

We always have available at least two perspectives - our own and that of the other person. Usually we assume both perpsectives during an encounter; we do not lose sight of our own point of view merely because we are empathetic toward the other. But sometimes our own point of view clashes so strongly with that of the other person that we restrain our empathy.

Smith shows an awareness of both sides of the empathetic relationship. His book might have been written only last year, so fresh are its insights. He explores the occasions in which normal persons empathize with, or distance themselves from, others. For example, he notes that when we encounter a person who is in a fit of rage, we are unlikely immediately to empathize by feeling similar anger, but we may feel exasperated with him instead - especially if we do not know what provoked him so.

"But we plainly see what is the situation of those with whom he is angry, and to what violence they may be exposed from so enraged an adversary. We readily, therefore, sympathize with their fear or resentment and are immediately disposed to take part against the man from whom they appear to be in so much danger."

And on many other occasions as well, we do not feel exactly as the other person feels, for we have a different moral appraisal of the situation and do not fully approve of her emotional reactions. According to Smith,

"We sometimes feel for another a passion of which he himself seems to be altogether incapable; because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination, though it does not in his from the reality. We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behavior."

What should we do if we find ourselves as a spectator reacting in a very different way than our companion who is suffering? We should try to empathize, to understand his situation more deeply.

Even so, however, Smith admits that we are unlikely to feel anything close to the misery of our companion, though both of us may wish that our responses were more similar As the suffering person is aware of the discrepancy between his feelings and ours, he will probably try to flatten his emotions, "lowering his passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with him." Thus, he too tries to empathize by placing himself in our situation and imagining how he would be affected if he were only one of the spectators. Smith recognizes empathy as the most social of all human capacities.

"How amiable does he appear to be, whose sympathetic heart seems to reecho all the sentiments of those with whom he converses, who grieves for their calamities, who resents their injuries, and who rejoices at their good fortune! ... And for a contrary reason, how disagreeable does he appear to be, whose hard and obdurate heart feels for himself only, but is altogether insensible to the happiness or misery of others!"

Smith points out that we have difficulty empathizing with people who are in love. However, we try to be tolerant of their emotion, since

"though it may be ridiculous, it is not naturally odious; and though its consequences are often fatal and dreadful, its intentions are seldom mischievous. And then, though there is little propriety in the passion itself, there is a good deal in some of those which always accompany it. There is in love a strong mixture of humanity, generosity, kindness, friendship, esteem..."

"The sentiment of love is, in itself, agreeable to the person who feels it. It sooths and composes the breast, seems to favor the vital motions, and to promote the healthful state of the human constitution; and it is rendered still more delightful by the consciousness of the gratitude and satisfaction which it must excite in him who is the object of it....

"We only regret that it is unfit for the world, because the world is unworthy of it..."

Smith also explores our sentiments when we are a third party, witnessing a conflict between two others, one of whom feels aggrieved over a supposedly abusive action by the other.

"Before we can adopt the resentment of the sufferer, we must disapprove of the motives of the agent, and feel that our heart renounces all sympathy with the affections which influenced his conduct."

The Theory of Moral Sentiments deals with the circumstances under which we, as spectators, should (or should not) empathize with the feelings of one person toward another. We should sympathize and aid him in retaliating only when he is a victim requiring defence or when action is necessary to show everyone that similar offenses will not go unpunished in the future. In particular, whenever an injustice has occurred and injury was done thereby, it is our duty to intervene to restore justice.

Also, Smith supports the norm of reciprocity. "Beneficence and generosity we think due to the generous and beneficent... The violator of the laws of justice ought to be made to feel himself that evil which he has done to another..."

I have presented tidbits of Smith's book to illustrate his kind of moral philosophizing. Notice that in all of the passages quoted, Smith describes the emotional responses that he believes normal adults display in particular circumstances. He goes on throughout his book, describing the kinds of moral judgments people make about each other whenever we appraise the character of others. He does not call it "immoral" to react in very different ways from the normal responses he describes, but he implicitly questions the wisdom or perspicacity of those who do so.

This seems fair enough. When we call someone, say, impulsive, flighty, self-centered, or withdrawn, we are judging his character on moral grounds, without necessarily suggesting that he actually deserves a reprimand for violating any rules. His moral sentiments are emotions that reveal his disposition toward others. They offer clues as to how he will actually behave in regard to serious issues, and they may prompt others to admire or shun him informally. Inappropriate emotions may not land anyone in jail or cause him to lose his job, but he may not be invited to certain dinner parties because of them. Thus the appropriateness of emotions reveals aspects of one's moral character.

Still, not all philosophers agree that sentiments or emotions can properly be judged on moral grounds at all. They reason this way: We cannot choose what we feel, so feelings cannot be ethical obligations. Hence feelings do not count as morally relevant.

Arne Vetlesen, however, has defended the view that I have been advancing, pointing out that we often find it necessary to explain our feelings and justify having them. Although we do not exactly "choose" what to feel, there is always a feeling tied up with every judgment, and if we reflect on the judgment we may change the way we feel. Moreover, we take responsibility for our feelings and our justifications, and we require other people to take responsibility for theirs. If they do not, we consider this a moral failure.

Identification and Cathexis

I want to consider here the varying intensity of our subjective involvement with others. Obviously, we do not devote ourselves equally to everyone we encounter. At the lowest level of involvement, we view some people virtually as physical objects; a woman may be no more than a hand that reaches out of the toll booth to receive our coins. Or we may observe a woman running and think, "She's swift for someone her age," without even considering why she is running or what she is thinking about.

At the next higher level of involvement we engage in what symbolic interactionists call role-taking. "She is running for the bus. The driver has not noticed her."

With Smith, we proceed to a more feelingful level of interaction. Here is our brother, suffering on the rack, and we experience sympathetic pain similar to his. All empathy includes role-taking, but perhaps we can say that not all role-taking involves much empathy, for empathy is largely a matter of emotion or sentiment.

Still, not all empathetic experiences are equivalent. When we watch a movie, as in our real social lives, we may empathize with all the characters, insofar as they display their emotions, while nevertheless taking sides and "rooting" more for one group or one character than for the others. When we are emotionally committed in this way to a character, we say that we "identify" with her, or with her group.

Identification is perhaps just an especially intense level of empathy and, like empathy, it is strongly affected by our moral appraisal of the person - by our multi-dimensional perception of her character. We may recognize complex negative and positive qualities in a person and respond more to certain aspects than others. A given person may seem adorable to me, but a reprehensible snake-in-the-grass to you, though we agree on the objective facts as to what he has done.

This brings us to the subject of attachment. Not only do we perceive people in different ways, but we may form strong emotional attachments (which old-fashioned psychoanalysts called "cathexes") or aversions to particular individuals. Symbolic interactionists would say that the first "significant others" whom most of us cathected were our parents. Subsequent attachments and antipathies occur throughout life as a result of mysterious psychological forces that no one can explain or predict. It is useless to suppress such passions. They happen uncontrollably, just as we fall in love uncontrollably, obsessively. Nevertheless, when it has happened, we would not choose to un-do it. Every cathexis makes us more human, even while making us more vulnerable. I am particularly interested in the cathexes formed toward fictional characters.