Empathy and Altruism: Are They Selfish?

In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German ‘Einfühlung’ (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. At the time, German philosophers discussed empathy in the context of our aesthetic evaluation, but Titchener maintained that empathy also helps us to recognize one another as minded creatures.

Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize, feel, and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing the other’s condition or situation from her perspective; and, second, sharing her emotions, and, in some cases, also her distress. Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are all reactions to the plight of others.

Pity is a feeling of discomfort at a people, person, or thing in distress, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that the person being pitied does not deserve his plight, and is more or less unable to alleviate, reverse, or transform it. Compared to either empathy, sympathy, or compassion, pity is a more distant and superficial feeling: the mere acknowledgement of another person’s plight.

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by the wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities, and greater personal investment. However, unlike empathy, sympathy need not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions. Indeed, sympathy is often more about the person sympathizing than the person being sympathized with. Empathy and sympathy often lead to each other, but need not do so.

Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of the other. With empathy, you mirror the other’s emotions; with compassion you not only share them but also elevate them into a universal, transcending experience. Compassion is one of the main motivators of altruism.

Like empathy, altruism is a modern term, coined in the 19th century by the French philosopher Auguste Comte from the French ‘autrui’, which itself derives from the Latin ‘alteri’ (‘other people’). It refers to unselfish concern for the welfare of others. The classical notion that most approaches altruism is probably almsgiving, which derives from the Greek ‘eleos’ (‘pity’), and means giving to others as an act of charity. In Christian theology, charity is, properly speaking, the love of man for God, and through God, for his fellow men.

It goes without saying that pity, sympathy, empathy, compassion, and altruism often blur and overlap.

The empathy paradox

My friend tearfully confides that, when she was a child, she was sexually abused by her father. Moved by her plight, I try to comfort her. “I know just how you feel.” To my surprise, she seems annoyed by what I just said. “No, you don’t know how I feel! You can’t!”

In claiming that I cannot know how she feels, my friend is implying that she knows how I feel—or, at least, that however I might feel, it is not how she feels. But if she is correct in asserting that I cannot know how she feels, then how can she know how I feel, and that how I feel is not how she feels?

A similar paradox is raised in the Zhuangzi, which is one of the two foundational texts of Daoism.

Zhuangzi and Hui Shi were strolling on the bridge above the Hao river. Zhuangzi said, “Out swim the minnows so free and easy, this is the happiness of fish.” Hui Shi said, “You are not a fish. Whence do you know the happiness of fish?” Zhuangzi said, “You are not me. Whence do you know I don’t know the happiness of fish?” Hui Shi said, “Granted that I am not you, I don’t know about you. Then granted that you are not a fish, the case for your not knowing the happiness of fish is complete.” Zhuangzi said, “Let’s trace back to the root of the issue. When you said, ‘Whence do you know the fish are happy?’, you asked me already knowing I knew it. I knew it from up above the Hao.

Theory of mind

Empathy rests on ‘theory of mind’, that is, the ability to understand that, being different, others see things differently from us, and perhaps also differently from reality, and that they have different beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, and so on. Theory of mind is innate (‘from up above the Hao’), first apperaring at about four years of age. It improves over time, and, for each individual and in general, can be trained in extent and accuracy. Importantly, it enables us to posit the intentions of others and to explain and predict their actions.

It has been suggested that the neural basis of theory of mind resides in ‘mirror neurons’, which fire when we carry out a particular action, and also when we observe that same action in another. The neurons ‘mirror’ the actions of the other such that they become ours, or like ours. This enables us to interpret the actions and infer the beliefs, intents, desires, and emotions that motivated them. Mirror neuron abnormalities may underlie certain cognitive disorders, in particular autism.

Benefits of empathy

From an evolutionary standpoint, empathy is selected for because it promotes parental care, social attachment, and prosocial behaviour, and so the survival of the gene pool. It facilitates social interactions, group activities, and teaching and learning, to say nothing of social manipulation and deception. It enables us to forsee patterns and problems, and to respond quickly and successfully to ever-changing needs and demands. Because it is one-step removed from us, it creates the distance or detachment required to make moral and normative judgements about others, and to take into account their long term good. Finally, in most cases, empathy brings about a positive state both in the person empathizing and the person or people being empathized with.

While empathy does of course promote prosocial behaviour, it can also distort perceptions of the greater collective good, leading us to violate moral principles and to privilege the welfare of a few above that of the many. Almost by definition, empathy is tolerable to the person on its receiving end, but can be exhausting for the person on its giving end. Our abilities to empathize are limited, both in accuracy and extent. A surfeit of empathy can lead to personal distress, and excessive demands on our empathy can end in ‘compassion fatigue’ and burnout. For all the reasons, we often restrict or even suppress our empathy, not from callousness or unconcern, but to conserve ourselves and ‘help ourselves to help others’.


Empathy leads to compassion, which is one of the main motivators of altruism. Another, less flattering motivator of altruism is fear. In this case, altruism is an ego defence, a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his problems and anxieties by stepping outside himself and helping others. By concentrating on the needs of others, people in altruistic vocations such as nursing or teaching may be able to push their own needs into the background, where they can more easily be ignored and forgotten. Conversely, people who care for a disabled or elderly person, or even for healthy children, may experience profound anxiety and distress when this role is suddenly removed from them.

Regardless of its motivator, altruism is good for our karma. In the short term, an altruistic act leaves us with an euphoric feeling, so-called ‘helpers’ high’. In the longer term, altruism is associated with better mental and physical health and greater longevity. Kinder people are happier, and happier people are kinder, setting up a virtuous circle of altruism.

At a more social level, altruism acts as a signal of interactive and cooperative intentions, and also as a signal of resource availability and, by extension, of mating or partnering potential. It also opens up a debt account, encouraging others to reciprocate with resources and opportunities that are potentially of much greater value to us than those that we felt comfortable to give away. More broadly, altruism helps to maintain and preserve the social fabric that sustains and protects us, and that, for many, not only keeps us alive but also makes our life worth living.

No surprise, then, that many psychologists and philosophers argue that there can be no such thing as true altruism, and that so-called empathy and altruism are mere tools of selfishness and self-preservation. According to them, the acts that people call altruistic are self-interested, if not because they relieve anxiety, then perhaps because they lead to pleasant feelings of pride and satisfaction; the expectation of honour or reciprocation; or the greater likelihood of a place in heaven; and even if none of the above, then at least because they relieve unpleasant feelings such as the guilt or shame of not having acted at all.

This argument has been attacked on various grounds, but most gravely on the grounds of circularity: “the acts that people call altruistic are performed for selfish reasons, therefore they must be performed for selfish reasons.” The bottom line, I think, is this. There can be no such thing as an ‘altruistic’ act that does not involve some element of self-interest, no such thing, for example, as an altruistic act that does not lead to some degree, no matter how small, of pride or satisfaction. Therefore, an act should not be written off as selfish or self-motivated simply because it includes some unavoidable element of self-interest. The act can still be counted as altruistic if the ‘selfish’ element is accidental; or, if not accidental, then secondary; or, if neither accidental nor secondary, then undetermining.

Only one question remains: how many so-called altruistic acts meet these criteria for true altruism?

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