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empathy vs sympathy

Herbert Spencer 1851


"The ability to derive pleasure from seeing pleasure, involves the liability to derive pain from seeing pain.

Sympathy prevents its possessor from inflicting pain, that he may avoid pain himself, and tempts him to give happiness that he may have happiness.

It is the aim of that work to show that the proper regulation of our conduct to one another, is secured by means of a faculty whose function it is to excite in each being the emotions displayed by surrounding ones - a faculty which awakens a like state of sentiment, or, as he terms it, "a fellow feeling with the passions of others" - the faculty, in short, which we commonly call sympathy.

As illustrations of the mode in which this agent acts, Adam Smith quotes:



"Persons of delicate fibres, and weak constitution of body, complain that in looking on the sores and ulcers which are exposed by beggars in the streets, they are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation in the corresponding part of their own bodies."

"Men of most robust make observe, that in looking upon sore eyes they often feel a very sensible soreness in their own."

"Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us, is as sincere as our grief for their distress, and our fellow-feeling for their misery, is not more real than that for their happiness."

"We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his behaviour."


Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments



We have all experienced the uncomfortable feeling of shame produced by the blunders and confusion of a nervous speaker; and at some time or other been put into a horrible tremor on seeing another at the edge of a precipice.

The converse action of the faculty is equally observable.

We find ourselves unable to avoid joining in the merriment of our friends.

Sympathy must be considered as a sort of substitution by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected as he is affected.

Adam Smith perceived the sentiment of justice as a sympathetic affection of the instinct of personal rights - a sort of reflex function.

Here lies the explanation of those qualms of conscience, as we call them, felt by men who have committed dishonest actions.

It is through this instrumentality that we receive satisfaction on paying another what is due to him.

These faculties originate the indignation narratives of political oppression excite in us like the gnashing of the teeth with which we read of the slave-dealer's barbarities.

Those who have the strongest sense of their own rights, will have the strongest sense of the rights of their neighbours.

The first illustration that suggests itself is afforded by the Society of Friends.

Amongst lunatic asylums, the York Retreat was one of the first, if not the first, in which a non-coercive treatment of the insane was adopted.
They were Quakers too, who years ago began publicly to exclaim against the injustice as well as the cruelty of war.

Conversely, we find that those who have not a strong sense of what is just to themselves, are likewise deficient in a sense of what is just to their fellow men.

As one of our living writers puts it - the tyrant is nothing but a slave turned inside out.

That "emancipated slaves exceed all other owners (of slaves) in cruelty and oppression," is a truth established on numerous authorities.

Sympathy and instinct of rights do not always co-exist in equal strength any more than other faculties do.

If devoid of sympathy, it is possible for a man who has a sufficient impulse to assert his own claims, to show no corresponding respect for claims of others.

Our sentiment of justice is really due to a sympathetic excitement of impulse.

Only by the sympathetic excitement of it, is a desire to behave equitably to others awakened; and when sympathy is absent such a desire is impossible.

No faculty whatever will grow, save by the performance of its special function - the intellect by perceiving and thinking; a moral sentiment.

Then, none will be hindered from duly unfolding their natures; for whilst every one maintains his own claims, he will respect the like claims of others.

For the first time in the history of the world, there will exist beings whose individualities can be expanded in all directions."



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