Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 267–277 | Cite as

The relationship between empathy and sympathy in good health care

Scientific Contribution


Whereas empathy is most often looked upon as a virtue and essential skill in contemporary health care, the relationship to sympathy is more complicated. Empathic approaches that lead to emotional arousal on the part of the health care professional and strong feelings for the individual patient run the risk of becoming unprofessional in nature and having the effect of so-called compassion fatigue or burnout. In this paper I want to show that approaches to empathy in health care that attempt to solve these problems by cutting empathy loose from sympathy—from empathic concern—are mistaken. Instead, I argue, a certain kind of sympathy, which I call professional concern, is a necessary ingredient in good health care. Feeling oneself into the experiences and situation of the patient cannot be pursued without caring for the patient in question if the empathy is going to be successful. Sympathy is not only a thing that empathy makes possible and more or less spontaneously provides a way for but is something that we find at work in connection to empathy itself. In the paper I try to show how empathy is a particular form of emotion in which I feel with, about, and for the other person in developing an interpretation of his predicament. The with and for aspects of the empathy process are typically infused by a sympathy for the person one is empathizing with. Sympathy can be modulated into other ways of feeling with and for the person in the empathy process, but these sympathy-replacement feelings nevertheless always display some form of motivating concern for the target. Such an understanding of empathy is of particular importance for health care and other professions dealing with suffering clients.


Empathy Sympathy Phenomenology Medical ethics Health care 


Whereas empathy is most often looked upon as a virtue and essential skill in contemporary health care, the relationship to sympathy is more complicated (Gerdes 2011). Empathic approaches that lead to emotional arousal on the part of the health care professional and strong feelings for the individual patient run the risk of becoming unprofessional in nature and having the effect of so-called compassion fatigue or burnout (Gleichgerrcht and Decety 2012). The perceived risks of unprofessionalism and burnout as the result of caring too much about the individual patient may lead to two responses by health care professionals and researchers concerning empathy and sympathy. The first is the familiar strategy of stressing the need for objective distance in the clinical encounter, not allowing the health care worker to get lost in the feelings and thoughts of the patient in exercising professional judgment (for a critical discussion of this traditional approach to empathy in medicine, see Halpern 2001).

However, disqualifying the entire realm of empathic care because of the risks of unprofessionalism and burnout is no longer the accepted alternative in contemporary health care. A second strategy for dealing with the risks is more recent and subtler, and it proceeds by way of separating empathy from sympathy, arguing that the first but not the second is a necessary ingredient in good health care (see many of the studies researched in Pedersen 2010). In this paper I want to show that this second strategy cannot capture the essence of empathy in cutting it loose from sympathy (from empathic concern). Instead, I will argue, a certain form of sympathy, which I call professional concern, is a necessary ingredient in empathic health care. Feeling oneself into the experiences and situation of the patient cannot be cut off from caring for the patient in question, if the empathy and for the patient should find its motivating force and proper form. Before developing this thesis about professional concern in health care it is necessary to dig a bit deeper into contemporary empathy research. This in turn will bring us back to some historical debates and positions regarding the nature of empathy found in the philosophical tradition.

Empathy research: a diversified field

As Daniel Batson notes in his essay “These things called empathy: Eight related but distinct phenomena,” the term is currently employed to mean many different things in the vast, multidisciplinary field of empathy research (Batson 2009). Some of these meanings of empathy are possibly overlapping; others point to phenomena that are very different. Batson’s list of definitions of empathy found in the literature reads as follows: (1) empathy as knowing another person’s internal state; (2) empathy as matching the posture of the other; (3) empathy as coming to feel what the other feels; (4) empathy as projecting oneself into the other’s situation; (5) empathy as imagining how another person is thinking and feeling; (6) empathy as imagining how one would think in the other’s place; (7) empathy as feeling distress at witnessing the other’s suffering; and (8) empathy as feeling for another person who is suffering (Batson 2009: pp. 4–6).

Batson also lists two questions that researchers invoke empathy to provide an answer to (and from these follow the eight different definitions): “How can one know what another person is thinking and feeling?” and “What leads one person to respond with sensitivity and care to the suffering of another?” (Batson 2009, p. 3). The researchers striving to answer the first question by way of the phenomenon of empathy have mainly been philosophers, psychologists, and recently also neuroscientists, whereas the researchers in the second group have come to include representatives of many other fields as well: aesthetics, media studies, history of ideas, sociology, social anthropology, etiology, medical ethics, social work, nursing, and many others (for overviews, see Coplan and Goldie 2011; Decety 2012; Gerdes 2011; Hollan 2012; Pedersen 2010).

The two questions spelled out by Batson are, indeed, different and one should therefore not be surprised that the definitions and theories about empathy (what it really is) come out so different in empathy research. In proceeding from questions about coming to know the feelings and thoughts of the other person to questions about caring for his wellbeing (7 and 8), the concept of empathy takes on a meaning that includes a feeling for the other person, an aspect of empathy also named sympathy or compassion in the literature. In the process of coming to have the same feeling as the other person is currently having (2 and 3), empathy in some cases seems to be related to what is known as emotional contagion in the literature, a process in which I feel the same thing that another person is feeling without being aware of this influence. The process of emotional contagion is often explained by way of references to our neural anatomy, notably to what has become known as “mirror neurons”.

Mirror neurons are neurons that fire not only when somebody does something but also when he sees or hears somebody else doing similar things. Mirror neurons thus make it possible for us to feel and understand the bodily expressions and actions of other persons without forming any explicit hypotheses about the mental states of these persons (Iacoboni 2008). The neurological research on empathy concerns not only mirror neurons; it also takes into account other forms of neurological processing belonging to at least ten different areas of the cortex and the limbic system that have been identified in that what Simon Baron-Cohen calls “the empathy circuit” of the human brain (Baron-Cohen 2011, pp. 27–41; see also Decety et al. 2012; Decety and Michalska 2012; De Vignemont and Singer 2006; Engen and Singer 2012). These areas cover not only mirror neurons operating over different sensory systems but also neural structures initiating feelings in situations that typically call for a quick emotional response (what is called somatic markers) and structures involved in face recognition and the expression of language. Many of these areas contribute to what is called “shared representation,” which means that they automatically activate the same neural circuits when I do or feel something, as when I watch somebody else doing or feeling the same thing, or even when I imagine or remember doing or feeling the same thing. But the brain is not only busy mapping these similar events by activating the same circuits; in the subsequent fractions of a second it also processes information that makes it possible for me to know if it is I or somebody else that is acting or expressing a feeling, or if I am only imagining or remembering the event in question. The activities in these parts of the empathy circuit also span areas that are connected to thought and language formation, suggesting that a more detailed understanding of the situation at hand is on its way. It seems obvious that some of these functions will be engaged not only in preconscious, automatic functioning but also in emotional-cognitive processing that will include intentionality in the sense of perceptions and thoughts with a meaning content being formed (Gallese 2009). In accordance with this phenomenological terminology, I will sometimes use the term “(intentional) act” instead of “experience” or “process” when talking about empathy.

The mirror neuron findings made in the early 1990s provided new resources for answering the two old questions listed by Batson: How do I get to know the experiences of other persons and how do I develop feelings of concern for the persons in question? (Batson 2009). The empathy researchers attempting to answer the first question—the other-minds problem, as it is called—were inspired by the mirror neurons to understand the way we come to know others in terms of direct perception and simulation, instead of in terms of hypotheses formed by way of analogy (Iacoboni 2008). I do not understand the other person as being in a certain state of mind because I form a theory about his expressions based on an analogy with myself, but because I feel his expressions directly and by way of immediate projection understand these feelings to be his rather than mine. Empathy as this ability of perceiving and imagining the other’s perspective on the world actually has a long history that was reactivated, so to speak, by the mirror neuron hype and through this brought back to the philosophy of mind (Stueber 2006). Important philosophers in this tradition of empathy are, for example, David Hume (1739/2000), Adam Smith (1759/2002), Theodor Lipps (1907), Max Scheler (1913/1954), and Edith Stein (1917/1989).

Researchers attempting to answer the second question were also greatly inspired by the mirror neuron findings, but in this case the inspiration was not only about how these neurons make us understand other people but also about how the neurons make us care for them. (The question about altruism was certainly an important subject, too, in most of the classical philosophical works just mentioned.) Neuroethics is a research field stretching beyond the realms of social cognition, introducing many fascinating questions about human nature as “good” or “bad” in essence. It is not surprising that this part of empathy research (the researchers aiming to answer not only the first but also the second question) has been the biggest and most expansive one (e.g. Baron-Cohen 2011; Hoffmann 2000; de Waal 2009). Some researchers trying to stretch empathy into the realms of ethics can, however, be criticized for not being careful enough in telling how empathy is possibly different from related phenomena such as emotional contagion, sympathy, or compassion (for a critique, see, for instance, Gerdes 2011). Empathy is often interpreted to include all these things, or even as synonymous to (one of) them in this literature. A popular idea is the so called “Russian doll model” according to which empathy is developed (through the history of evolution and in the individual) as a series of layers grown on top of each other, starting out with mirroring processes and developing into feelings of concern for and thoughts about the predicament of others (de Waal 2009, pp. 208–209).

In the second group of empathy research the term empathy is most often employed to include sympathy (sometimes named compassion). That is, the understanding of the other person brought about by way of empathy includes a feeling of concern for her, and the resulting understanding will motivate the empathizer to help the target person (Batson 1991; Hoffmann 2000). In contrast to this approach, researchers of the first group have been strikingly busy with trying to separate empathy from sympathy and related concepts. Empathy does not necessarily include or result in any warm feelings of concern, but is essentially a form of knowledge about the other person targeting what he is feeling or thinking, they claim (e.g. Goldman 2006; Zahavi 2010).

Having taken the conceptual divergences in empathy research into account, allow me now to give a preliminary characterization of empathy as I will interpret the phenomenon in this paper: Empathy is an emotion, a feeling towards the other person in which I have, at least typically, been influenced by way of emotional contagion and, as a result of this and further developed concerns for the target, gear my attention towards his experiences and life situation in undertaking various forms of interpretations of them. This is a broad definition of empathy which nevertheless does not conflate empathy with contagion or sympathy, and which allows for empathy to take place in various ways and on different levels. Empathy can be a direct perception of the other person’s sadness, but it can also be developed into an imaginative and/or dialogic attempt to find out why he is in pain and what might be done about it. Since it is an emotion, empathy always has a feeling component to it, but it also involves various thoughts about what the other person is feeling, thinking, wanting, etc. (Goldie 2000).

The analysis of empathy that I will develop in this paper could be viewed as a way of making the connection between empathy and sympathy found in the works written by representatives of the second group of empathy researchers more explicit and tenable. I would like to show how sympathy and altruistic intentions are not only things that empathy makes possible and more or less spontaneously provides a way for, but something that we find at work in empathy itself. That sympathy is at work in the process of empathy itself should, however, not be understood as the content of empathic understanding always equalizing the thought that I feel sorry for the other person or/and that I ought to help her. Sympathy is to be understood as the driving force of the empathy process, a part of its form rather than its content. Empathy and sympathy are both emotional experiences and they are typically bound to each other in the process we refer to as empathic understanding. Using a terminology often employed by empathy researchers, I would like to show how cognitive empathy (forming thoughts about the predicament of the other person) always rests upon affective empathy, both in the sense of tuning into the feelings of the other more or less unconsciously (emotional contagion) and in the sense of feeling concern for his wellbeing (Halpern 2014).

Feeling with, about and for the other person

Empathy is typically elicited when we encounter persons expressing strong feelings, most often associated with suffering (this is certainly the case in health care). In these situations we are put into a state in which we experience feelings similar to the ones we are witnessing by way of preconscious mirroring of the bodily expressions of the other (De Vignemont and Jacob 2012). A typical example is suddenly encountering a person who is in bodily pain. Watching him, we immediately feel something similar to pain, and being put into this state by the automated processes in question, we also feel an urge to act in order to relieve the pain in question. In the course of fractions of a second we realize that the pain-like feeling we are experiencing is a result, not of ourselves being injured, but of witnessing the other person in pain, and in this process the primary mirroring behavior is turned into an understanding of the other person’s feeling and situation that can become more sophisticated by way of various imaginative undertakings. In this process, the primary urge to act to relieve suffering found already on the automated level will typically be turned into an experience of sympathy, feeling for the other person, and possibly, also, doing something to help him.

Empathy consequently seems to start with a preconscious feeling with the other, in the sense that we are tuned into a similar feeling when we perceive his bodily expression, which then turns into an emotion about the other person’s feeling, which, at least in the standard case, also turns into a feeling for the other person (sympathy), which makes us take action to help him, provided we do not act on competing impulses or intentions that prevent us from doing so. Thus, although empathy is distinct from emotional contagion and sympathy in being a feeling of or about the other person, not only a feeling with or for him, it seems to demand a caring for the other person in the sense that an impulse to act is part of the empathy process from the very start. The thing I want to point out here is that empathy and sympathy typically connect with each other in a kind of about-for-about-for-about, and so on, process. When my feeling of what the other person is feeling is turned into a concern (a feeling for him), the feeling in question also becomes refueled with energy to seek explanations of and reasons for why he is feeling bad. This more sophisticated empathetic understanding will give rise to new forms of sympathy, and so on. Empathy is, at least in standard cases, motivated by a sympathetic drive (De Vignemont and Jacob 2012). I will return to the issue of how this sympathy can be modulated into other forms of concern for the empathy target in the empathy process. The most important example of this in the present article is what I will call “professional concern,” which is the form of sympathy found in empathic health care.

The model I have developed explains why “being empathic” in everyday understanding most often is used as a shorthand for being morally good, whereas lacking empathy is viewed as a moral defect (Battaly 2011). In contrast to this, philosophers of empathy (belonging to the first group of empathy researchers pointed at above) most often want to keep the empathic and the moral realm separate (for an exception, see Slote 2007). Getting to know the predicament of the other person is not the same thing as coming to the conclusion that one ought to help him, or, even less, taking action in order to help him, they point out (e.g. Prinz 2011). One can come to the conclusion that the other person deserves her suffering, or one may fail to help because one is a coward, an egoist, or too distressed by other things that call for attention. An example that is often brought up in order to show that one can have empathy and yet not be morally virtuous is the psychopath, who ruthlessly exploits the suffering of the other for his own gain and perhaps even sadistic pleasure (e.g. de Waal 2009, pp. 212 ff.). More common than such forms of emotional exploitation is that the distress felt facing (or hearing or reading about) the suffering other leads to avoidance in order to relieve the painful feelings in oneself rather than to sympathy and altruistic behavior (Eisenberg and Eggum 2009).

In what follows I will try to deal with the psychopath and various other examples and arguments that attempt to show that empathy without any concern for the target is, indeed, possible or even standard. My goal will be to show that any empathy deserving its name is driven by sympathy or, at least, some form of empathic concern for the person one is empathizing with. Sympathy is therefore at work from the very start in the empathy process in the kind of dynamic relationship of feeling-about and feeling-for that I sketched above. All cases of feeling-with (being affected by) the other person may not lead to empathy, but if they do, sympathy will be involved (see also Svenaeus 2014).

The phenomenology of empathy: an emotional account

As Dan Zahavi has recently argued, developing approaches we find in Max Scheler (1913/1954) and Edith Stein (1917/1989), empathy is primarily not to be thought about as a simulative account of the state of the other person, but as a direct perception of him (Zahavi 2010, 2014). Such empathic perceptions are complex in the sense of targeting the other person’s emotional expressions as being rich in meaning content. For example, I can see immediately – without making any inferences by way of thought – not only that the other person is sad but also that he is asking for help by way of his outstretched hand. I can also see that a person is running away from a tiger, or that he is thinking hard, or even that he is thinking “I am going to kill you” by the look of his eyes. Perception in this way is complex even though it is direct in the everyday meaning of the term. The complexity in question depends upon the content of the perception taking on significance as part of a larger meaning pattern of human practice – the network of meaning relations that Martin Heidegger – another well-known phenomenologist – referred to as our “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger 1927/1996, pp. 64 ff.). Admittedly, the more complex the perception in question becomes, the more it seems to qualify as a form of interpretation. Heidegger famously referred to his phenomenology as hermeneutic in essence, and even talked about a “hermeneutics of empathy” (Heidegger 1996, pp. 124–25; see Agosta 2010).

I see no possibility of judging when, exactly, an empathic perception in a certain situation ceases to be direct and takes on the form of an interpretation, but I think it is important to stress two things about the empathic process in question. The first is that empathy will typically take on a form that is not only direct but also indirect, relying on interpretative hypotheses and various attempts to adopt the perspective of the other person. The second thing is that the reason for this drift towards interpretation and increasing complexity is that the empathizer is motivated by an ambition to understand more about the experiences and situation of the target. If such an ambition is not to be found, we would not in most cases name the act in question an instance of empathy, at least not in the everyday meaning of the term. I see that he is angry, I see that he is going to attack me, I even see that he thinks “I am going to kill you,” but why does he want to do that? That is the question that, if asked in this situation, possibly turns my perception into an act of empathy, whereas if I merely become afraid and try to run away it would be strange to say that I was empathizing with my attacker.

The situation above is one in which it is particularly hard to empathize, at least if I am not protected from the aggression in some concrete physical sense and/or motivated by some form of professional responsibility (for instance, by working as a psychiatrist). Situations that elicit empathy more spontaneously and easily are cases of human suffering that are not threatening in nature – like the beggar asking for money. Even in this case we might shy away, however, afraid of getting involved, or protecting our own interests. If we do so, I think it would be strange to call the perception and resulting action a case of empathy. The decisive thing here is not whether I give the beggar a coin or not, since I may come to the conclusion through different empathic and communicative attempts to understand his experiences and situation that he is better off by not being given anything (because charity will make him weaker and unable to find a way out of his predicament) or that he does not deserve any money (because he has ended up in misery as a consequence of being bad). The decisive thing is whether I take an empathetic interest in his experiences and situation. Such an interest must always be a form of concern for the other person.

The term “empathy” is a translation of the German term “Einfühlung,” which was first employed within the discipline of philosophical aesthetics, literally referring to a “feeling oneself into” the experiences of the art work or the other person (Stueber 2006, pp. 6 ff.). It is relatively unlikely that I will ever see a person running away from a tiger in real life, though I may see a painting or a film portraying this happening, or read about it in a book. In all these cases – and especially in the last one – the process of feeling oneself into the experience and happening that is being portrayed seems to be crucial if we are to understand them in the most vivid and complex manner. I think the aesthetic roots of empathy are important to consider in making the transition to epistemology and ethics. The “feeling into,” originally considered as a way of understanding works of art, found at work in empathy should not, however, be interpreted as a form of projection the way simulation theorists ever since Theodor Lipps have attempted (Lipps 1907). It should, as I stressed in my preliminary definition above, instead be understood as a form of emotional attention, trying to understand the experiences and situation of the person being empathized with out of concern for his wellbeing.

As I noted above, an important aspect of the phenomenological proposal Zahavi develops is that empathy is primarily a form of perception of the other person, not a hypothesis or imaginative account of him and his experiences (Zahavi 2010, 2014). Empathy can arguably, however, also take on more indirect forms when we engage in perspective-taking through imaginative efforts to put ourselves in the situation of the other, as the simulation theorists of empathy point out (Goldman 2006). In both cases I think it is crucial to underline that empathy, in addition to being a perception and interpretation of the other person, also is a feeling of him and his experiences, actions, and situation. Perceptions come in many different forms, and one could argue that they are always to some, more or less conscious, extent attuned in presenting something in the world to us (Heidegger 1996, pp. 134 ff.). This is the point that the mirror neurons and other associated findings in neuroscience make salient (Damasio 1999).

Emotions present things that happen in the world around us—and other people are part of this everyday world—by way of feeling. When I go through an emotional experience I feel it in my body, although in many cases I am not focused on the bodily sensations in question. This is no coincidence, since the emotional experience is directed towards something in the world that is made present to me in a vivid and attention-consuming way through the feeling in question—a thing I am afraid of or ashamed of, or happy or curious about, for example. Peter Goldie talks about emotions as having intentionality “borrowed” from bodily feelings; they are ways of “feeling towards” states of the world in a kind of “imaginative perception,” which he characterizes as a “thinking of with feeling” (Goldie 2000). Emotions are not merely beliefs about how things in the world are (and ought to be) typically accompanied by bodily feelings (what is most often referred to as a cognitive theory of emotion); they are ways of judging the world in perception by way of feelings that are anchored in the body (what we might term a perceptual theory of emotion). The object of empathic emotions is precisely the feelings, actions, intentions, and situations of other persons that we explore and judge to be such-and-such in empathic experiences of them.

Now, empathy is not a special form of emotion in the sense that it feels in one certain way in contrast to other ways of feeling things to be such-and-such in the world. I can find myself in many different types of feelings when I go through empathic emotions in perceiving and interpreting the other person to have such-and-such experiences. I may be angry, sad, joyful, worried, or curious when I am empathizing with the other, to mention some common examples. Some types of feelings are particularly hard to feel empathy during while one is in them, since they tend to preclude the gearing of attention towards the experiences of the other person—the move that makes the emotion in question empathic. Boredom is an obvious example and so is fright. If I am bored—in general, or with the other—it is hard to empathize with him. If I am frightened—in general, or, particularly, if I am frightened of the other (the example above)—it is even harder to direct my attention towards the experiences he is having (and the reasons for them) because all my attention is consumed by the project of saving myself from his anger and threat.

At this point in my argument I would like to point towards an important distinction that is often, at least implicitly, made but then not consistently upheld in discussing the similarities and differences between empathy and sympathy, namely that one feels empathy witha person’s experiences and situation, but sympathy forthe person himself (Slote 2007, p. 13). This may sound trivial, but it is not. I feel sympathy for the other person because he is experiencing suffering, for example, but I do not feel sympathy for the experiences in question; these are, instead, the objects of my empathy. In this way sympathy, as I wrote above, fuels empathy and vice versa. The two types of emotions are consequently related but nevertheless distinct features of the act and process of empathizing–sympathizing in total. Empathy is developed in the form of sympathy (or other forms of concern, see below) and sympathy is provided its content by way of empathy.

Sympathy at work in empathy: objections and responses

The term sympathy has a different etymological origin than empathy; it originates in the works of eighteenth-century moral philosophers such as David Hume (2000) and Adam Smith (2002) (Coplan and Goldie 2011). Since empathy did not exist as a concept in the English language at this time, it is probably not fair to say that these philosophers mixed up the meaning of empathy and sympathy. A more benevolent interpretation is that they tried to account for both of these two types of attention and concern in everyday life. This is also the way Max Scheler sees things. Although he wants to distance himself from Hume and Smith, the project he is embarking upon in The Nature of Sympathy (1954) has the goal of setting up an ethics that is spelled out in more detail in Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values (1913–16/1973), which was published simultaneously with the first edition of The Nature of Sympathy. Scheler’s concern is not primarily to present a theory of social understanding, but to make use of the “other minds” discussion to investigate the possibilities of sympathy, especially in a more elaborated form which he names love (see also Stein 1989).

A direct perception of the other person’s experiences without any feeling of sympathy for him is, indeed, perfectly possible, as Scheler points out (1954, p. 9). However, the moment the type of geared attention that I have stressed as necessary for calling the experiencing act in question empathy is introduced, there will also be a concern involved that is typically a sympathy for the other person (not for his experiences and situation). If no such concern enters the scene, the perception of the other person’s experiences will not develop into an act of empathy, because there is no reason to focus one’s attention upon the experiences of the other in a deepened exploration. In such situations we interact with other persons, maybe even do things together with them, but we are not engaged in empathy because the focus of our attention is not the feelings and thoughts of the other person, but instead something else we are trying to bring about in a social setting. The relationship between empathy and sympathy is dynamic, because not only does sympathy provide a motivation and a way for empathy, so does empathy for sympathy. I normally come to care more about the other person as I find out more about his predicament.

My idea of how empathy and sympathy relate to each other as typically joining forces could be challenged by many alleged counter-examples. The point being made that an act is not necessarily either an act of empathy or an act of sympathy but, most often, both, it still appears to be the case that I can sometimes empathize without sympathizing or sympathize without empathizing. The latter objection is perhaps the easiest to block given my distinction between the person on the first hand and his experiences and situation on the other. Can I really have sympathy for a person if I know nothing about his life experiences? If I have not even perceived him or heard or read about how he suffers in some way? Probably not; my sympathy in this case would rather be a sort of compassion for human beings as such (or for other animals if I choose to sympathize with them). The first-mentioned counter-possibility—empathy without sympathy—is a harder one to handle. It demands the development of a series of specifications of my thesis. These specifications will make the thesis weaker regarding the relationship between empathy and sympathy, but they will not, I think, hollow out the thesis altogether. The specifications will also allow me to come back to the point where I started out above: the role played by sympathy in empathic acts performed by health care professionals.

A first objection is that I do not necessarily feel compassion with the other person in empathizing with him, because in some cases, rather, I want to hurt him and I engage in empathy to be able to do so. Two examples that are often discussed are the sadist and the torturer (mentioned already by Scheler 1954, p. 14). I would agree that in these cases empathy with the other person’s experiences is admittedly not joined by any sympathy for the victim, but it is, nevertheless, joined by a kind of negative concern for the person in question. This is the concern that fuels the empathy when the sadist takes pleasure in the victim’s suffering or the torturer attempts to make the victim’s life a hell by way of exploring his weaknesses. There are many details to be sorted out here. One may, indeed, say that the main concern in both these cases is not the concern that the other person should suffer, but the concern that I should take pleasure from his suffering or reach some other goal from it—making the victim tell me where his allies hide, for instance. In this way the acts of torturers are most often not examples of what we might call pure evil, since in pure evil I simply want the other to suffer with no other concerns whatsoever in mind. (I will leave open the question of whether pure evil in this sense could be excused, and possibly even made good, by adding the stipulation that the other person deserves his suffering.) Pure evil is probably rare, but so, probably, one may add, is pure goodness in the sense of sympathy with no stains of self-concern.

An even tougher case to handle for the sympathy-in-empathy thesis is the one we could call “cold mind-reading empathy.” It is sometimes claimed that psychopaths are masters in this game (de Waal 2009, pp. 212 ff.). However, I think this is a mistake; most cases of antisocial personality disorder that we find in real life are, rather, persons who feel no concern for other human beings whatsoever and therefore do not empathize with them, either (Baron-Cohen 2011, pp. 75–84). Most psychopaths are not cruel or brutal in the sense of the sadist and the torturer but, as Scheler writes, suffer from a form of insensitivity that “arises as a result of the patient’s exclusive preoccupation in his own feelings, which altogether prevents him from giving emotional acceptance to the experiences of other people” (1954, p. 14). Scheler’s case is depression, and other typical examples of inability to empathize are the personality disorders and, also, importantly, the autism spectrum disorders. To simply be more or less insensitive to the experiences of other people can take you very far in hurting them; you need not be cruel or brutal in the way sadists and torturers are. Some psychopaths may be cruel or brutal rather than insensitive, but if so, this also makes them sadists and torturers and therefore not cases of cold but of “warm” mind-reading in displaying negative concern for the victim.

Let us compare the case of psychopathy (antisocial personality disorder) with another type of mental disorder that Baron Cohen discusses at length in his book and in which empathy also appears to be lacking, but in a very different way: autism spectrum disorder (Baron-Cohen 2011, pp 99–128). Persons suffering from autism spectrum disorders, also on the high performing end of the spectrum (Asperger’s syndrome), have difficulties understanding what other persons feel and why they feel the way they do. Social understanding is limited and this is evident already in situations in which the person suffering from Asperger’s fail to recognize that the face and body language of the other person expresses pain, joy, sadness, terror, etc. The subsequent mode of imagining being in the other person’s situation by taking her view on things is also more or less inhibited in Asperger’s. Consequently, persons with Asperger’s truly do not understand what is going on in the other person; it is not only the case that they fail to sympathize with other persons or even use them in order to fulfill egoistic or sadistic preferences as in the case of the psychopath. Persons with Asperger’s have limited capability for empathy in the sense of not understanding what the other person is experiencing, whereas they can still care for the other person and her wellbeing in a general sense. In order to bypass this defect they have to learn by non-emotional operations to recognize, for example, how a face of a sad person looks like, or how other persons typically behave when being distressed, happy or angry. The Asperger example is, as a matter of fact, the perfect illustration of why the empathy process in the normal case does not work as many philosophers of empathy seem to think that it does, that is: not as a kind of cognitive operation interpreting the other person’s look and behavior in order to conclude what is amiss with her. Empathy in real life (minus the exceptions of Asperger) works by way of an emotional process that can be developed into various cognitive hypotheses and judgment, but that is not such a hypothesis or judgment from the start.

A more promising example of cold mind-reading than various mental disorders, from the perspective of countering my thesis, is the scientific attitude towards the other person that is supposedly fueled by curiosity rather than concern—negative or positive—for him. Psychologists doing experiments with their subjects in a more or less ethical manner may be good examples of this, or anthropologists studying foreign cultures, or etiologists studying the behavior of animals. I admit that scientific empathy is a hard case to handle for my empathy-with-concern thesis. It seems pretty cold, at least some of the time. If any concern is to be found here, it is possibly a concern for human beings as such, a kind of parallel to the sympathy without any specific target that I discussed above. It is like the sympathy I could possibly feel for a person (or an animal) without knowing anything about him and his life in that it concerns the workings of all possible human (or animal) experiences (actions, life situations) anyone could ever have. Scientific empathy—I am a bit reluctant to give it this name—is, however, far from being standard or part of everyday life. It is rather a specialized activity and type of attention attained by a move away from the attitudes and reactions we normally display in meeting persons. When scientists—like the father of behaviorism, John B. Watson—approach their own children from a primarily scientific perspective instead of caring about them, we blame their behavior, exactly because it is devoid of empathy (Buckley 1989).

Some would claim that scientific empathy is also the type of empathy that doctors, nurses, psychotherapists, and social workers (should) employ when helping their patients/clients, but I think such ways of making empathy more professional in nature throws the baby out with the bathwater. Doctors, nurses, psychotherapists, and social workers do feel concern for their patients/clients in attempting to help them. They must be able to control and modify the nature of this concern in order not to become unprofessional or suffer burnout as a result of it, but this does not mean that they adopt a strictly scientific, cold attitude (empathy without concern) as a result of this modification, or that a strictly scientific attitude would ever be enough to make them good professionals. In fact, such an attitude, while sometimes allowing good science to be done, would immediately put the practice at risk for unethical treading (Halpern 2001, 2014). Petra Gelhaus has recently developed an account of empathy with professional concern in health care that in many ways overlaps with the way I have developed the concepts here (Gelhaus 2012a, b, 2013). Gelhaus prefers the terminology of compassion and care rather than sympathy and concern, but the essential argument is the same: empathy needs to be geared by a form of professional caring for the patient that is ingrained in the attitude and actions of the physician (or other health care professional, I would add). In the articles of Gelhaus the nature of what I call professional concern in health care is developed much more in detail than I have found room for in this article (Gelhaus 2012a, b, 2013). My concern and aim has been to show exactly how empathy and sympathy in health care belong together by way of spelling out the form of the empathy- and sympathy-processes and the way they connect to each other in empathic understanding.

A last objection to my thesis would be that we often engage empathically with other persons’ experiences without sympathizing with them, namely when we engage in fictitious accounts, reading novels, watching movies and plays, etc. It would take me too far to develop a full response to this objection—all the way back to the pity and fear ideally experienced by the audience of a Greek tragedy—but allow me to point out that the reason we engage in fictitious accounts is exactly that we do feel concern for the characters in novels, films, and plays in various ways. We sympathize with them and wish them well, we despise them and wish for their downfall, and so on. This is what keeps us going in our empathetic explorations of the experiences found in the novel, movie, or play. This is, as a matter of fact, the very process that Lipps (1907) tried to account for in terms of resemblance and projection, and although I do not think that his model is an accurate one, let us not forget that empathy started out in aesthetics (Stueber 2006).

The significance of showing empathy to be supported and developed by sympathy in health care

The reason for discounting the link between empathy and sympathy in a great deal of empathy research is partly that good thinking and science demand clear definitions of the phenomena to be investigated in order not to mix them up (Coplan and Goldie 2011). This is certainly an important point considering the research field I have portrayed above, in which the concepts of empathy and sympathy are often used without providing proper definitions and as a result have been mixed up with each other. However, this is arguably not the only reason why many contemporary empathy researchers find it so important to keep empathy distinct from sympathy. My suspicion is that the importance assigned to empathy in the boom following the discovery of mirror neurons has made it increasingly important to stress the cognitive aspects of empathy and this in turn has made the relationship to the sympathy phenomenon suspect. Empathy is what is important, not sympathy, which is even potentially harmful to the ability to develop real knowledge about the other person, so the arguments seem to go (Gerdes 2011). Accordingly, empathy is (objective) knowledge, whereas sympathy is (subjective) feeling. That empathic emotions about the other person are always felt to some extent by the empathizer often seems to be forgotten. Or, at least, sympathy appears to be toomuch of a feeling to allow knowledge about the other person to be developed in a sustained way in much of contemporary empathy research.

Researchers such as Simon Baron-Cohen (2011) and Frans de Waal (2009) who attempt to show, not only in scientific papers but also in popular books, that our biology makes us other-concerned rather than egoistic and manipulative are thus accused of not maintaining a proper distinction between empathy on the one hand and sympathy and morality on the other. The charge of not defining the relationship between empathy and sympathy in any consistent way is certainly true of the work of both Baron-Cohen and de Waal as well as of many other “empathy makes us good by nature” enthusiasts in the recent boom (e.g. Iacoboni 2008). Nevertheless, this failure on their part and the tendency to name everything that is positive and compassionate in human (and other animal) interaction empathy does not make the role played by sympathy in empathy less essential. The important thing is to point towards the more exact ways empathy and sympathy are dynamically related, as I have attempted to do in this paper.

I believe the tendency to focus upon empathy only and throw sympathy into the waste bin is not only mistaken as regards the ways empathic processes really do work but is also harmful in fostering an ideal of a balanced, non-emotional practitioner who is then nevertheless, strangely enough, called empathic. Do not feel sympathy (and certainly not pity) for your clients, since this will only lead to burnout on your side and helplessness on their side, is the message proclaimed in such studies (see Pedersen 2010). Such recommendations will sometimes border on the perverse idea that it would be possible to feel and know the emotional world of other persons in a thorough way without caring for them. This is a fantasy, of course, suspiciously connected to some of the worst aspects of the positive psychology movement and the trend to professionalize all forms of human encounters (Ehrenreich 2009; Furedi 2004). This fantasy presents empathy as a professional skill divorced from all feelings of sympathy for and attempts to come to the aid of other persons. One may, indeed, wonder if it is possible to get further away from the phenomenon as described by Hume, Smith, and many of the other philosophers in the empathy tradition(s) I have pointed towards above (Hume 2000; Smith 2002).

Professional concern for the patient in health care is a feeling for him that opens up a world to be explored by way of imagination and dialogue (Halpern 2014). The concern is professional in nature because it deals with the patient precisely as a person the health care professional has the duty to aid in respect of his education and position. The patient is therefore not a friend in private but is nevertheless a person whose feelings, experiences, and situation the professional feels himself into in an empathic process by way of concern. Such professional concern can lead to feelings of pain and helplessness on the part of the health care professional, and in such cases it becomes detrimental to good care (Gleichgerrcht and Decety 2012). But it need not do so if health care professionals are offered adequate training and knowledge about the empathy process, time to meet their patients and respond to their needs in a dialogue, and opportunity to reflect upon their feelings with other professionals (Agosta 2014).

As I have elaborated upon above, the most basic form of concern for the other person is enacted as a feeling with him in being touched by his suffering (bodily and facial expressions) through resonance processes. This primitive form of sympathy takes its starting point in contagion (mirror neuron processes and other related neural circuits), but as soon as the empathizer realizes that the source of his feelings is the target and not himself, the possibilities of empathy open up. If the empathizer shies away and relieves his feelings of distress by looking after himself rather than the other person, the empathic possibilities are not realized. If, on the other hand, the concern becomes other-directed, empathy is initiated and can be developed in various ways: through continued attention on the actions and expressions of the other person and through attempts to interact with him and/or imaginatively step into his perspective.

The success of such continued empathic engagements depends upon the extent to which the empathizer is able to tune into the experiences and contextual horizon of the other person by caring about his predicament in various ways. The feeling-with the other person consequently goes far beyond emotional contagion and is basically a way of joining moods that make a shared being-in-the-world possible (Heidegger 1996, pp. 117 ff.). Matthew Ratcliffe has analyzed the role played by such fundamental moods, which he calls “existential feelings,” in providing a basic sense of belonging to the world (Ratcliffe 2008). He has recently also stressed the importance of such shared moods for empathic understanding (Ratcliffe 2012). If I am not able to tune into the world of the other person because his existential predicament is too foreign to me, for instance, if he is depressed, then I will not be able to empathize with him, and neither will he with me (Ratcliffe 2014). The ways we are attuned and our abilities to tune into each other by paying attention to the predicament of the other person are immensely important for our possibilities to understand each other.

If feeling-with is the starting point for empathy, in health care as well as in other forms of practices, dialogue and narrative may be thought about as the main paths in bringing it forward and making it “thicker” with respect to our understanding of the other person. The best way to understand the world of the other (his feelings, thoughts, situation, etc.) is a dialogic engagement with his life story (Gallagher 2012). In some cases we may have to content ourselves with only seeing, or hearing or reading about, the other person, but the imaginations of what it would be like to be in his shoes or be him (about this distinction, see Coplan 2011; Goldie 2011) that we are able to form without engaging in dialogue are fairly restricted and certainly fallible. The sympathy for the other person that joins empathy from the very start should never make us forget that we are different from other persons in many respects although we are also connected to each other from the very start (see Bornemark 2014). Consequently, empathy is not only a feeling of the other person, it is also a way of responding to his feelings and in this concern attempting to understand his predicament because we care for him. The interpersonal understanding we are able to develop on the basis of empathy is best thought about as a form of hermeneutics, as Heidegger acknowledged, even though he and other phenomenological philosophers, such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, hesitated to make use of the term empathy (Einfühlung) because of its association with a Cartesian model of the mind (Stueber 2006, pp. 204 ff.; see also Pedersen 2010; Svenaeus 2000). We do not feel ourselves into the life of the other person by way of finding a door to his enclosed house of mind; we feel together-about-and-for him in sharing a world and trying to find out how he, particularly, fits into the picture. This is how empathy works, in health care and in other essential human encounters.



The author wants to thank two anonymous reviewers and Matthew Ratcliffe for valuable advice and support in developing the arguments of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Centre for Studies in Practical KnowledgeSödertörn UniversityHuddingeSweden

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