How to clarify the aims of empathy in medicine

  • Riana J. Betzler
Scientific Contribution


This paper argues that enthusiasm for empathy has grown to the point at which empathy has taken on the status of an “ideal” in modern medicine. We need to pause and scrutinize this ideal before moving forward with empathy training programs for medical students. Taking empathy as an ideal obscures the distinction between the multiple aims that calls for empathy seek to achieve. While these aims may work together, they also come apart and yield different recommendations about the sort of behavior physicians should cultivate in a given situation. I begin by demonstrating how enthusiasm for empathy has increased dramatically. I then specify precisely what I mean in calling empathy an “ideal.” I then describe some dangers associated with taking empathy to be an ideal unreflectively. I discuss the merits of works that provide conceptualizations of empathy that are specifically tailored for the medical domain and conclude that although these works move discussions about empathy in medical care forward, they could do more to foreground the goals and aims underlying calls for increased empathy. I provide specific suggestions as to how exactly we might foreground these goals and aims to further avoid conceptual confusion about empathy in medical education.


Empathy Medical education Doctor–patient interaction Medical communication 



I would like to thank Tim Lewens, Jonathan Roberts, and my colleagues at the University of Cambridge, who provided helpful discussions as I began to think through the issues in this paper as part of my PhD research. I would also like to thank the Konrad Lorenz Institute for providing a wonderful, collegial environment within which to finish this paper. Finally, I would like to thank the audiences at the “Doctor, Doctor” conference in Oxford and the “Empathies 2017” conference in Basel for their attentiveness and helpful feedback. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers, whose feedback greatly improved the paper.


This work was supported by a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research as well as a PhD fellowship funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013)/ERC Grant Agreement no 284123.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition ResearchKlosterneuburgAustria

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