Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Empathy Isn't Just for Pussies

The Happy Feminist has a nice post on the importance of empathy. In recounting a case she tried as a prosecutor, Happy tells us:

When I was a prosecutor, I argued for the maximum sentence for a man who had kidnapped his ex-girlfriend at gunpoint in the hope of running off across the country with her and marrying her. He thought he could make her love him through use of force, including beating her, threatening her with a gun, and holding a knife to her throat. I told the judge that this guy was extremely dangerous because he completely lacked "empathy." In other words, he completely lacked the ability to see a situation from the point of view of the other person involved. The defense attorney then went off on how "inappropriate" it was for me to impose "feminist New Age values" like "empathy" on his client.

My jaw dropped when I read those lines. I can’t help but worry about the toxicity of masculinity when I hear such comments. To imagine that empathy is a trait for “pussies” makes me seriously worry about the fate of men. Certainly there are many empathetic men, and many fathers who encourage their boys to be empathetic towards others. Without empathy, human interaction and community are impossible. In fact, without empathy, ethics would be impossible.

Sure, Immanuel Kant argued that we should always do the right thing independently of our inclination to do so; moral acts are moral only insofar as we act out of our duty. Such a rule-bound approach to ethics, however, is how we end up with utterly inhumane legislation like this new bill being offered in Ohio. Those who propose it believe to be acting in accordance with duty, with principles, and yet fail to empathize with those women who would seek out abortions.

SteveG is found of saying that figuring out what to do is usually quite easy; only in the hard cases do rely upon moral deliberation. And, he is right. However, moral deliberation should involve far more than discerning the proper rules; we need to pay attention to peoples’ stories. Without the ability to imagine ourselves in the place of the Other we are likely to fall into the trap of moralizing. Moralizing is bad. Moral deliberation is good.

Women are encouraged quite early on to pay close attention to the emotional life of others; we are depended upon to notice when others are suffering, angry, fearful and then respond with compassion and care. This is emotional labor; paying close attention to others and sensing their needs requires time and energy. This emotional labor has traditionally freed men up, allowed them to focus their energy and time outward, toward creative projects. Women focus their energy and time inward, toward the home, the self, and relationships.

What feminists have pointed out for decades is that encouraging men to see the world as conquest, as raw material for their creative projects, at the expense of their ability to make meaningful connections to others is risky.