No moral philosopher would likely disagree with Paul Bloom’s thesis that raw empathy cannot supply a robust ethics. Yet he is right to dwell on the sort of Platonist delusion behind the notion of empathy as a panacea for social problems, as though people would do better if they knew better. The truth seems more Augustinian: people are usually capable of knowing how others feel, sympathizing on some level, and rationalizing all manner of depravity anyway.
But Bloom’s foray into the landscape of spirituality is a more curious feature of his essay.
Cognitive empathy, Bloom writes, is a “process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, what they believe,” while emotional empathy is the more commonly understood “process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do.” The two styles of empathy happen to track well with distinct Buddhist types of compassion, one based on a detached commitment to compassion as a principle, not so different from Kant’s ethics; the other based on a “sentimental” practice of empathy, which is inferior as it tends to burn practitioners out. Bloom uses laboratory experiments to delineate rather neatly these two modes. And there is clearly wisdom there: someone who continually exhausts himself by experiencing the pain of others will probably not sustain a functional practice for long.
The depth of Christian mystical empathy echoes the observation that emotional empathy “is always perched precariously between gift and invasion.
But in other spiritual traditions, intense communion may serve an irreplaceable function, and the boundary between the two types of compassion is more fluid. Consider the Christian mystical tradition. On the tendency of cognitive empathy—which in the Christian mystical frame might be called contemplation, or mentally working out the thoughts, feelings, and realities of another—to elide into emotional empathy, or the sharing of sentiments and experience, Christian historian Ivan Illich writes:
The word compassion . . . does not appear in the thesaurus of classical Latin. It is found in Tertullian, the Vulgate and Ambrose. But it becomes a central motive only in the sermons of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He instructs his monks to search for the wisdom of the heart by becoming martyrs through compassion with the Word. About the same time, Elizabeth von Schönau is the first of a long line of women who experience long drawn-out visions of Christ’s passion through which they suffer with him. . . . Compassion with Christ, for these late medieval mystics, is faith so strong and deeply incarnate that it leads to the individual embodiment of the contemplated pain.
In other words the contemplation of Christ and his sufferings is a voluntary mental exercise that bleeds into a total experience of communion, first emotional and sentimental, and eventually full-fledged, sometimes blossoming into stigmata. Whether or not you think the manifestation of physical counterparts to Christ’s wounds is a credible phenomenon, the concept is that of the ultimate empathy, and in the Christian tradition it has a powerful connection with contemplation.
The depth of Christian mystical empathy echoes the observation that emotional empathy “is always perched precariously between gift and invasion.” In that case, why would the Christian mystic, unlike the contemporary Buddhist spiritualist or workaday person imagined by Bloom, elect to endure it?
I think the answer has to do with function. For Buddhist spiritualists, what function does empathy interfere with, when it comes to “burnout”? Or, more generally, what emotional states prime one to be especially functional or dysfunctional? If a person faces ongoing demands upon her emotional resources and requires a steady stream of positive, upbeat responses in return, then it is easy to see how empathy might eventually render her dysfunctional. On the other hand, if she lives in a world where piety and intense relational faith are valued, the otherwise unhealthily empathetic stigmata could be seen as supremely functional. And, indeed, many of us venerate a number of Christian figures whose empathy overwhelmed them even unto death.
This is not to suggest that all should aspire to mystic ecstasy, but rather to observe that the success or failure of particular emotional states appears deeply dependent upon context. It may be wise to question the demands and structure of contemporary society before determining an individual’s appropriate level of emotional availability. True, the more distant and emotionally restrained person might be more functional given the requirements of our post-industrial market society, but one might also ask whether the shrinking niche for the emotionally unguarded reflects a loss for us all.