Empathy for the Devil?

Having consigned reason to that impoverished realm of human experience that can be subjected to controlled experiments and the quantification of their results, we are left with no basis upon which to make moral judgments except for feelings.

Empathy, I’ve long seen, is often a function of where you happen to be looking. It’s easy for people to feel sorry for someone standing in front of them, begging to be let off from some penalty for their wrongdoing, full of excuses, explanations that don’t explain anything, and suggestions that maybe the wrong they did was right after all. It’s easy, because it costs nothing. You may say your heart goes out to the sinner. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.

People are often pretty glib about what they call their hearts. When real hearts do go out, they experience real pain, and in a case like that of the shuffling and dodging sinner, it must be the pain of conflict, because you want to be merciful, yet you must not be a traitor to right and wrong. Meanwhile, if you do not take care, you may feel nothing at all for the people whom your indulgence can harm—because they are not in front of you to behold and to consider. You may not even acknowledge their existence at all.

The literal meaning of empathy suggests that it is a faculty and not in itself a virtue. Some people can, as it were, project their own senses into another person’s experience and feel what he feels; I imagine that a good psychiatrist requires such a faculty. But what you do with this fellow-feeling, this unveiling of someone’s soul, is another matter. We feel all kinds of things, some good, some bad.

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