Social Empathy: The Art of Understanding Others, by Elizabeth Segal

It’s still a puzzle how we come to care about groups different from us, says Constantine Sandis

October 18, 2018
Reflection of human figures on a pavement
Source: Alamy

This important book deserves to be taken seriously by anybody interested in social welfare. Elizabeth Segal introduces and defends her concept of specifically social empathy, distinguishing it from what she sees as mere interpersonal empathy. Crucially, only the former is thought to give rise to appropriate levels of concern towards others qua members of social groups radically different from our own. If Segal is right, social empathy is vital not only within her own field of social work, but for all aspects of social – and even foreign – policy. So what is social empathy, and how does it differ from other forms of empathy?

We are frequently told that empathy is the key to understanding others, to being moral and, ultimately, to making the world a better place. Yet neither its proponents nor its detractors seem able to agree on what it is, other than that it has something to do with mirror neurons. In the past decade alone, “experts” have identified it with a feeling, a skill, an ability, a disposition, an activity, a method and an art. Which, if any, of these is it?

According to Segal, empathy is best characterised as the ability to understand others, be it by feeling what they feel or by putting oneself in their shoes. But do we better understand another person because we feel their pain, or do we feel their pain because we better understand them? There is a chicken-and-egg problem here, which books on empathy tend to ignore, and Segal’s is no exception. She assumes the commonplace view that empathy gives rise to understanding, and not vice versa, yet it is unclear why this should be so.

In a crucial passage, Segal argues that we are less likely to understand strangers who are radically different from us than “those we know”, it being harder to empathise with what is foreign or alien. She concludes that we must train ourselves to acquire a distinctively social empathy, understood as “the ability to understand people and other social groups by perceiving and experiencing their life situations”. Without such understanding, Segal rightly notes, we remain oblivious to the needs of those different from “us” (whoever we may be), leading to highly unjust – and perhaps even cruel – social policies. But how can I feel for another without some prior claim to understanding their predicament? As Segal herself notes, social empathy requires knowledge of “their history and lived experiences”. But does this not render it an effect of understanding rather than a cause?

There is an instructive contrast here between Segal’s position and that of Paul Bloom, as presented in his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. They agree that we are less likely to feel empathy for those who are remote from us in various ways: cultural, geographical, racial, socio-economic, biological and so on. Whereas Bloom thinks that this fact counts against empathy (for prejudicing us towards our own kind), Segal believes that it counts in favour of cultivating our ability to empathise socially with “other others”. Such debates cannot be settled by either surveys or cognitive science. What they need is a more refined elucidation of the different conceptions of empathy at play.

Constantine Sandis is professor of philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire and the author of The Things We Do and Why We Do Them (2012) and Character and Causation: Hume’s Philosophy of Action (2018).


Social Empathy: The Art of Understanding Others
By Elizabeth Segal
Columbia University Press
288pp, £27.00
ISBN 9780231184809
Published 16 October 2018

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Print headline: Get in with the out crowd

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