Empathy means understanding that some people have less of it

When I was a young boy, my parents kept chickens in the garden. Not for the eggs, but for slaughter. We had about thirty per year. My father raised them, and at the end of their short lives brought them to a slaughterer, who finished the job. After that, they’d land in our freezer and later ended up on our plates. It was my parents’ way to eat “better” meat, healthier especially.

From a young age, I empathized with these chickens. Now and then, there were weak or wounded ones among them. These often got pecked on by their fellows. I used to take care of them. I took a cardboard box, put straw, water and feed in it, and put it inside the house, next to the stove, where the animal would be warm, and hoped the chicken would get better. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.

We also had a few goats. This wasn’t for cheese or anything, but because my brother had wanted them. I liked those goats. One night, I dreamed (or thought I dreamed) of a goat crying. I just slept on, thinking it wasn’t real. The next morning, I heard that one of the goats had fallen in the pond, and hadn’t been able to climb back out. I cried my eyes out after hearing that, and I still feel bad about it (maybe I could have realized it wasn’t a dream, I could have gotten up).

Recently, I was sitting on a subway train, and a homeless or poor person was asking for money. In front of me were two women, each of them briefly looking at the man. On the one woman’s face, I saw (or thought I saw) indifference. On the other woman’s face, I saw empathy and compassion. I felt so much sympathy for the latter woman, and remember thinking: “You care, that’s so beautiful.” I was moved. But, my next thought was: who or what was it that made her into a caring person? Was it a decision she made herself? And, if so, what gave her the power to make that decision? Regarding the other woman (if my perception was correct), was it her own fault that she didn’t care or cared less? I felt that each one of these people was a product of their upbringing, their environment, their genes.

Empathy for animals came to me from a very young age. I purposely wrote “came to me”. I didn’t look it up. I didn’t decide to have empathy for animals. I was six or something, and it was already there.
Some people have less of it than I have, some have more. I don’t know why I had or have the amount of empathy I do (or for that matter, the amount of will or discipline to put that empathy into practise). Maybe everyone is born with empathy, but we need to be lucky to have people around us who cherish and nurture it, rather than telling us we don’t need to have it.

I haven’t made up my mind about how much free will we have, but in any case, I believe that the control we have, about who we are, what we believe, and even what we do, is limited. I’m sure that empathy is, to some extent, teachable, and surely we can influence other people, help them to be better, through our educating efforts.

But having empathy also means we need to understand that, maybe through no fault of their own, some people start out with less of it.

9 thoughts on “Empathy means understanding that some people have less of it

  1. Also important to note: The amount of empathy you have for others can change. I don’t know why or how or if we’re capable of changing the amount of empathy other people have. But I do know that I have more empathy for others now, especially for animals, then I used to. I’m way more emotional. I used to never cry at movies but these days I sometimes do.

  2. It’s many years ago now but when in Mumbai traveling in a car with two Indian vegan friends, one who was driving. We stopped at the lights and several women beggars appeared thrusting babies at the car window, my friends ignored them saying it’s just an easy option to beg, they can easily get jobs!
    It appears that it is not difficult for humans to ‘compartmentalise’ empathy. Committed vegans they are but that empathy is focused on animals and not certain humans.
    To some extensive their views were confirmed when we went to the famous Gate of India and it was clear that children beggars were being directed to us from an organiser sitting nearby.
    In a similar vein we all know vegans who emphasise totally with animals but have little patience with certain humans whom they identify as the cause of animal suffering. You can only emphasise when you can truly see another persons point of view and put yourself in their shoes.

  3. “Psychopathy, sometimes considered synonymous with sociopathy, is traditionally defined as a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, ***impaired empathy*** and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, egotistical traits.”

    Psychopathy – Wikipedia

    Should we also be cutting psychopaths and sociopaths slack? I for one don’t think so. I don’t have a solution but empathizing with people who lack empathy does not seem productive. The dominant animal-abusing culture already excuses the inexcusable.

  4. Good point: have empathy for those with little or no empathy. If we are to live in the kindest way possible then let’s extend our kindness to all, because that’s who we are. Our empathy and kindness don’t need to be earned or compartmentalized.

  5. Assuming that the amount of empathy people feel is genetically variable….this amounts to promoting one variant over another. This isn’t much different than what people have done for centuries for physical characteristics. For example upholding certain genetic variants up as “beautiful” while others as needing to be changed.

    If you told this story in another context, perhaps a forum for hunting, it would undoubtedly be seen negatively……they would likely believe the boy needs to be *less* empathic.

  6. It’s so wonderful that i found your blog, especially this articel with those questions in it i must often fight with too, because i don’t come to satisfactory answers. I just believe, that it is m o r e the biology/heredity/ the things inside the body, than the enviroment, who made us as we are. But that dosn’t mean the enviroment wouldn’t be involved… I just see in the near future, that Epigenetics and Biospsichology could help. But now:

    Regards just from your friendly neighborhood Antinatalist!

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