Empathy versus sympathy

Empathy and sympathy overlap, but I will use “sympathy” here to mean “blind compassion,” or feeling something that you shouldn’t be feeling in the first place, just because you weren’t even a part of the circumstances or situation that affected the party in suffering, but by golly, you feel bad for some reason!

Good old fashioned pity.

Sympathy in that manner is the disease of liberalism; for example, “We feel bad that we see those homeless people on the street, and we can’t do anything about it directly, but let’s toss a few bucks their way so that we don’t have to feel guilty about how much more well-fed and better off we are than they are anymore.”

This is the pity that Nietzsche once talked about that makes people feel good about themselves. It’s the pity that fuels liberalism.


[T]he intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.


[T]he fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, esp. in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.

It doesn’t solve problems, it merely creates the illusion that it does, as if the problem itself only existed in the mind. It’s a process of solipsism, as if it were just an issue of bad feelings that needed to go away, like a little bedtime tummyache.

It only perpetuates the inability to detach and analyze the hows and whys of the emotion we’re feeling, and what we can do to effectively handle the issue that stirs up these kinds of feelings.

I like to think of being “empathetic” as being a detached understanding of the how and why behind the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others without the solipsistic pretenses of suffering in their exact situation; for example, “Those homeless people seem to be living a tough life.”

“It must really suck to be dirty, wear ragged clothes while trying to stay warm and dry. We could try to help them out by giving them some money (and feel better about ourselves for doing so), but they probably ended up that way because of the circumstances they were born into, and the decisions they made early in life, and there’s nothing I can do right then and there to fix that. We’d only be prolonging his own unfortunate suffering, that would be very selfish of us to do that.”

Depending on who you are, empathy in this sense might seem harsh. I can empathize.

(Un)fortunately, this is the only way to help alleviate all of our collective suffering: by not letting our emotions get in our way so that we can help ourselves help others more effectively and with better prejudice. It makes little sense to have a rationale guided by emotion, compared with emotions guided by rationality. The former is a very infantile mind; the latter is mature.

To those who can’t help but sympathize with every victim of everything: Stop feeling, and start thinking about your feelings. Why do you suddenly care that a bunch of people you never knew died in Haiti, or died starving in Africa today, and what’s it going to change if you do care? It’s too easy to play the generous, benevolent type when you have money to throw at starving, downtrodden people.

If you want to fix problems to end suffering in the world, why not start with yourself?

To quote Mohandas Gandhi (in this tired old cliche): “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” It rings true, time and time again.

It probably seems contradictory and solipsistic, too, to not want to help someone! How arrogant, right?

It seems more arrogant to want to help out a homeless stranger when you’ve got your own share of issues to worry about, like a family who you need to feed and take care of, or a country that’s being inundated by people who don’t even care about the place. We shouldn’t squander our emotional energy on things that won’t come to fruition for us, or even on things that could possibly kill us.


  1. Robert W says:

    “To those who can’t help but sympathize with every victim of everything: Stop feeling, and start thinking about your feelings. Why do you suddenly care that a bunch of people you never knew died in Haiti, or died starving in Africa today, and what’s it going to change if you do care? It’s too easy to play the generous, benevolent type when you have money to throw at starving, downtrodden people.”

    The only thing I “felt” bad about regarding Haiti’s last earthquake was that body count wasn’t higher.

    1. crow says:

      “The only thing I “felt” bad about regarding Haiti’s last earthquake was that body count wasn’t higher.”

      Now that is both gratuitous and thoroughly ill-advised.
      Unless, of course, your actual aim is to supply ammunition to the left.
      It is one thing to refrain from sending aid to earthquake victims, but quite another to wish more of them dead.

      1. Robert W says:

        Not being beholden to either the Left or the Right, I’m not really concerned with supplying anyone with any intellectual ammunition.

        The Haitian earthquake relieved the world of a good many no-account losers who’d otherwise have surely polluted the US with their inferiority the second they illegally came ashore.

        To pretend otherwise is a sure sign of Xtian infection.

        1. crow says:

          “To pretend otherwise is a sure sign of Xtian infection.”

          It’s not about pretence.
          It’s about enabling the left to feel justified about going on an anti-right crusade. It’s bad enough as it is.
          The idea, here, is to show leftists that their delusions are exactly that. To maybe show them those things they haven’t been able to see, yet. Not to re-inforce them by spouting the sort of thing they are only too eager to label as…
          Well, we’ve all heard those labels.

          I have no problem with anyone thinking whatever they think.
          But there is a time and a place for publicly airing these things.

          1. Robert B says:

            How about if we point out the fact Chile (IIRC) had a quake 600 times more powerful a few months later and did not ask for help and did not suffer the damage. Along the way, a person might also point out that the Chileans have a higher IQ average than the Haitians…

            “just sayin….”

          2. Robert W says:

            To be honest, pretense is exactly what it is about, and always has been. No one really cares about Haitians, whether a hundred or a hundred thousand of them die in an earthquake. All herdlings care about is the pretense of being publicly seen caring about them, about getting their “good guy badges.”

            As for enabling the left, who cares what a bunch of anti-Occidental losers think about anything. You are no more going to change their minds about anything than they are you, so why worry over “crusades.”

            As for their delusions, again, no amount of logic is going to sway an extremist. Nature has hardwired “leftists” to think the way they do. And it is the height of folly to think that you will be able to dissuade them from their worldviews by simply “reasoning” with them.

            Slightly off topic, but have you ever noticed that your average leftist has about the same reasoning capacity as your average Islamo-terrorist/jihadist.

            Anyways, fretting over how the left “labels” their ideological opposite numbers seems sort of silly to me. Like being good, i.e., compassionate conservatives will ever change their minds about you.

          3. crow says:

            You’re right. It is about pretense. I just don’t like it, that’s all. It sits not well, and seems ugly and pointless. It offends me.
            Yet you don’t seem generally offensive, and so what anyway?
            We had a good discussion about it, without getting stupid.
            I don’t agree with you, but your reasoning is sound.
            This is why right-wingers sometimes think I am a leftist :)

            You’re also right about leftists. Reason isn’t in their bag of tricks. I’d rather get along with them, but that just isn’t going to happen, no matter how much I would like it to.

            You uncovered my taoist core. Darn it. But that’s good.
            I am the way I choose to be, after having been everything else I didn’t want to be.
            I don’t give a toss about Haitians, either. But as long as they stay on Haiti, it would never occur to me to wish them dead.
            Perhaps your anger (or whatever it is) stems from outrage at the way the left whipped up the usual storm of phoney compassion and largesse towards them? I was equally outraged at that. But I levelled my anger at the perpetrators, not the targets.

    2. ferret says:

      “The only thing I “felt” bad about regarding Haiti’s…”
      I wish you never experience grief.

      1. Robert W says:

        I have, and plenty of it.

      2. Robert B says:

        I have experienced much loss and resultant pain in my life–but that does not mean that I must have compassion for someone on the other side of the world whom I do not know, nor have any vested interest in. I mourn with my friends for their losses. I even felt sympathy for Serbians when Clinton bombed them–but I mostly felt shame that my nation had stooped so low–and for an enemy of “my people”.

        I guess thats when I knew for sure that America was no longer the nation that I had been born in to.

        Since I would never build so shabbily as it was noted by even Giraldo Rivera, as the Haitians did, I cannot have any sympathy or compassion for their plight. Anyone who builds out of concrete and uses one fifth as much portland as is required should expect their buildings to fall down and be prepared for it.

        Now, you could say that we should have sympathy for them because they are not smart enough to build properly–that would include their poverty as they could be a wealthy tourism meca. But my answer to that is that they are then too stupid to breed. The Earth is full, the liberal nonsense of turning every place under the Sun into a human zoo is a sign of mental illness–so is deliberately thwarting nature by extending charity to them. No amount of charity will raise their IQ. No amount of charity will change the way they ultimately live. The Left has prospered because the rest of us have allowed them to live their lie in this regard. Stupid people should not breed. Stupid people should never be paid to breed. That, in itself, is the reason why our society–and the world, is headed downward into a dark abyss.

        1. crow says:

          Well see? How hard was that, to write hundreds of words to justify your views?
          Sad it should be necessary, but you know, and I know, that it is.
          You can’t just say you wish people were dead, although, typically, I had a weak-minded leftist say that about me and anyone like me, not long ago.
          The difference is: you and I would not take such crap seriously, while your average leftist would move heaven and earth to ruin our lives, for doing exactly the same thing.

          1. Robert B says:

            LOL, Crow, LOL–sad, but so true. Liberals cannot handle the truth, they want Utopian magic statements instead. And that’s all that matters–not what you do or accomplish, but merely what you say.

      3. ferret says:

        There is a difference between not born and killed.
        There is a difference between efficient birth control and efficient killing.
        There is a difference between wishing not to be born and wishing to be killed.
        If in order to understand and feel this slight difference a person has to conduct an experiment: to make a baby and kill it, then to simply use a condom, and then to compare the results in both cases, I would say, this person lacks imagination.
        If the failure to see this difference becomes a part of the culture, people at certain point start killing each other, and this is at least irrational.

        1. crow says:

          Well said. Said well.
          Nuance counts for a lot.

  2. EvilBuzzard says:

    This was interesting and a good read. I’d have liked even more had it addressed the issues of helping vs. enabling. You give the homeless dude a Jackson. He spends it on a bottle of Night Train. He winds up tired, passed out and then hung over. You may feel special, but you’ve just made the homeless dude’s plight worse; not better.

    1. Decimator says:

      Exactly! Our liberal America has enabled dozens of countries above and beyond our own people. As I see it, We must begin shunning these people. This includes the welfare dependent people of our country. We have 4 and 5 generations of welfare recipients in this country. We need to act as if they don’t exist until they can ask if they may help us. at that point, they can be compensated.

      All of this is truly simple. The complexity come when rebellion occurs or when they want more for their service. What do we do then? What do we do when they take up clubs, rocks and knives to convey their point. I know this sounds horrible. The reality is, that is exactly what we need to happen. And if we are lucky, the movement will incite anger and violently drag in the proles. Their emotion is their weakness and it must be exploited. We must stand our ground and allow them to overstep their bounds to the point of lethality. The squeeze come in when their “advocates” begin ranting. Those people who stand out pointing at establishments of wealth and power as the cause of the proles problems. These people will probably have to be proactively dispatched into fertilizer. They are too intelligent and have honed their skills too finely to be diplomatic at any level. They have to be made into examples.

      At some point the line has to be drawn and the line must be held. We must exert as little outward force as possible and use the incoming force against them. The whole concept is classic Sun-Tzu . My only fear is that as Men, we loose focus of the objective and feed on the power. Then we are back to where we began.

      1. EvilBuzzard says:

        Once you become the enabler, you do own their asses. I think that’s one thing that makes social welfare programs so popular amongst the richest of the rich. Threatening to burn up all their food stamps is a great way to tell the proles where they can get off the bus.

        1. Decimator says:

          I can’t agree in full. I believe that we should be seeking a goal of self sufficiency. The richer should be providing the opportunity of stable employment with healthy working conditions. Those with the least ability could be compensated with shelter and food. As ones ability and skill increase, so does the compensation. I have always been against the minimum wage idea. One can easily see where this could go and the benefits on a social level would be extraordinary.

          1. crow says:

            Buzzard speaks in macro-terms. The wider view.
            His outlook does not work at all well on the local level.
            Decimator speaks on the purely practical level.
            I always go with practical.
            Like: always.

          2. ferret says:

            “The richer should be providing the opportunity of stable employment with healthy working conditions.”

            In capitalist economy the goal is to make profit; stable employment has no relevance at all.
            Also it is much easier and cheaper to provide food stamps for unemployed than to keep emploees with K401 plans, medical insurance, etc.

          3. Decimator says:

            Stable employment= A place to go to daily to exchange labor in for monetary gain or food and shelter.
            Safe employment= Work that has minimal chance for loss of life or limb.
            I said nothing of 401k or medical insurance. Retirement is an individuals responsibility along with health care. The only medical benefit would be for work place injury. I have a Idea about how things could be. one day I’ll have to put it writing. I would really like to see what all of you think. Perhaps I’ll organize my thoughts soon.

          4. ferret says:

            Why “The richer should be providing the opportunity of stable employment with healthy working conditions”?

            Is it the capitalist way of production that requires it?
            Is it the richer inherent morality, or what?

  3. Hami says:

    First off, you for a fact have empathy and sympathy backwards. An empath is a person who literally feels other people’s feelings if the person’s emotions are strong enough within a certain range of the empath. Therefore, empathy is the one where you mightyou are affected even if you don’t want to be or shouldn’t be.

    Second off, sympathy and pity are also not the same thing. Sympathy is genuine, while pity is when it’s being faked to pretend one is compassionate when one actually isn’t. See, if you had ever been abused before, you would know this. Every person who’s suffered real abuse knows this.
    And, anyone who is an empath, or knows an empath, will grasp the difference between empathy and sympathy.

    Please, if you don’t have enough experience or reflection on a subject, don’t start babbling about it like an expert. Faux experts aren’t cool, they just piss people off.

    1. crow says:

      I wouldn’t say the author got it wrong, Hami. It’s more to do with his usage being at odds with yours. This is very common with these particular terms.
      Many mistake empathy for sympathy, and vice-versa. both in usage and in interpretation.
      I am – for example – a born empath, to the point where, although it is a blessing, it can also be a curse: I feel what others are feeling, in addition to what I feel myself. This can get confusing, and counterproductive, fast, if I let it.
      Whereas I am almost incapable of feeling sympathy. I simply have no time for it, and it seems to me to be lacking in practicality.

      I would say that, for me anyway: empathy is useful, and can be put to practical use, to both acquire insight, and to get things done.
      Whereas sympathy serves no useful purpose, and is purely an emotional state, catering to pity, without inherent practicality.

      I feel this way because – to me:- there is always ‘good’ in ‘bad’, and often ‘bad’ in ‘good’. As I said: not everybody feels this way.

      1. Decimator says:

        Wow. I got so narrow minded that I failed to even see the flaw. The last couple paragraphs seemed to hang with me.

        1. crow says:

          You’re a silly one sometimes :)
          In spite of your obvious wisdom.
          You don’t call yourself narrow-minded: other people do that for you. While referring to themselves as open-minded:)
          Mind the irony: the unwary might trip over it.

          1. Decimator says:

            Nicely said sir. :)

  4. LuxLibertas says:

    As someone who flirted with liberalism as a teenager, I more than understand the impulse to help someone in pain/enduring hardship. My DNA has been encoded with an excess of compassion and it has been my burden to learn how to properly channel it into something productive. Compassion is basic to the human condition and if one is lacking in it they are properly labeled as a sociopath. But a conservative doesn’t get fooled by sentimentality; he examines the results and consequences of his actions.

    Besides the political reality that most aid gets funneled to dictators and many charities operate inefficiently, the bottom line is that throwing money at people teaches them nothing and often only exacerbates their suffering. The Bible advises against throwing your pearls at pigs, whether that be a pearl of wisdom or a material good. Even queen Oprah realized she can’t just write checks to random fools on the street. There is plenty of evidence to support her conclusions, from lotto winners squandering their earnings to the inanity of the modern-day welfare system. The only function of such blind altruism is to apply a temporary salve to a guilt ridden ego.

    We can do a lot better at helping people by correctly identifying those individuals who will benefit from such charity and become productive. More importantly we must revive traditional culture, which took care of widows and orphans but would not suffer the foolishness of indolent men.

    1. Decimator says:

      Most churches have become as corrupt as government. How about we tax churches at say 80% and give them tax breaks for claiming the down and out as deductions? They are non profit, right? It would be much easier if we could conduct ourselves as good conservative people.

    2. Discard says:

      LuxLibertas: Regarding aid being funneled to dictators, as I understand it, the control of the distribution of Western charity is the main source of power in much of Africa. Of course, the possession of AK47s enables one to have that control.

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