The Ethic of Empathy
A couple of days ago, I posted on the subject of the new purity ethic. As I have followed the development of this conversation over the last couple of years, among the things that I have found the most striking is the degree to which progressive evangelical discussions on purity and sexual ethics are governed by what one could term an ‘ethic of empathy’.
At the heart of this ethic is a concern for the feelings and sensitivities of persons and an acute attention to the internal character of people’s experience. The currency for this ethic is the personal narrative and the sharing of feelings. Truth emerges from the empathetic encounter, as people bravely and authentically articulate their stories, in a manner ‘true to themselves’. These stories and the feelings that they express should be honoured as sacred and we should be careful not to invalidate or judge either.
Such an ethic is concerned about anything that might negatively impact upon people’s feelings. This negative impact can take a number of forms. None of us should be made to feel judged, condemned, or defiled on account of our actions, nor should we be allowed to feel that we are suffering the just consequences of past sinful actions. As much as humanly possible, we should all be affirmed and validated in our choices and stories. It is unreasonable to hold people to standards that are painful and unpleasant and especially wrong to maintain that someone has a very demanding moral duty when we have no personal experience of their position. Instead of harsh and judgmental language such as ‘sin’ and ‘fornication’, we need to be prepared to adopt softer and more therapeutic terms, palliating the unpleasant feeling of shame, and, rather than speaking of God’s claim upon us, which can seem demanding and subject us to external judgment and potentially coercion, speak of virtue in terms of the language of self-realization, authenticity, and being all that we can be.
For such an ethic, the sin of non-marital sex takes a backseat to the sin of ‘slut-shaming’. Far, far worse than having sex outside of marriage is the possibility that one should be made to feel really bad, impure, judged, or subject to long term adverse consequences on account of that fact. It is also necessary for us to recognize just how painful and demanding it is for people in certain positions to live according to Christian norms, how difficult for the long term unmarried person to live with the possibility of never enjoying any sexual contact, for the unhappily married person to live out a hopeless existence in a marriage where all of the spark has gone and only bitterness remains, for the gay man to spend the entirety of his life resisting some of his most powerful desires, or certain young divorced persons to be denied the chance ever to remarry by God.
As I observed in my previous post, within such an ethic, we gradually become the measure of our own selves. As this occurs, we cease to be expected to act in accordance with higher norms, principles, and realities, which provide criteria by which our lives can be judged and by which we can be held accountable. As truth is increasingly situated within the incommensurable particularity of people’s subjective narratives, our moral principles become partial truths – true for me, but perhaps not for you – bespoke rules that will sit awkwardly on other’s shoulders.
With this ethic comes a new form of discourse, a greater dependence upon a conversational and self-revelatory style, and typically leads to an overflowing of mutual affirmation. Any truth that claims to be public or objective is treated with great suspicion. When truth is largely situated in the subjective narrative and the immediacy of the feelings that ground it, ‘objective’ truth could only be the tyrannical and power-hungry masquerade of an imperious subjectivity (typically perceived to be that of the privileged white male). In such a context, any impression that the subjective narrative might be invalidated, challenged, or subordinated to a greater narrative will typically be reacted to with outrage, especially if white privileged males are seen to be doing this.
The Critique of the Purity Culture
The purity culture falls foul of this ‘ethic of empathy’ in a number of respects. It is seen to place an onerous burden upon young unmarried people, a burden that very few can live up to, leaving many with a deep sense of futility, frustration, guilt, or personal worthlessness. It shows little regard for the particularity of people’s stories, for the way that some might experience non-marital sex as a minor issue or even as a blessing, or for the particular harshness of its demands upon some. It judges people by a standard beyond their truthfulness to themselves, threatening their autonomy and right to tell and determine the meaning of their own stories. Even adherence to the demands of this culture, despite the claims that one sometimes hears within it, will often leave people trapped within profoundly unhappy marriages. This ethic is seen to be particularly demanding and demeaning in its treatment of women. For many others, a limited pool of marriageable Christians will mean a lifetime of celibacy and childlessness. For an ethic that tends to fetishize feelings and subjective narratives, all of this is unconscionable.
It might be recognized that these charges against the purity culture are certainly not all unjustified. The purity culture can often be legalistic and graceless, feeding a poisonous shame. It can be blind and indifferent to the sorts of demands that it places upon people, many of which could be partially relieved with a little more mindfulness. It often manifests a pronounced and troubling double standard in its treatment of men and women, judging women in an especially harsh manner, making them feel hopeless and worthless on account of past sexual sin or their lack of a spouse. It also can make false promises, teaching a sort of sexual prosperity gospel, suggesting that ‘abstinence’ will lead to marriage to highly eligible partners, to fulfilling ‘sex lives’, and to higher self-esteem.
These faults of the purity culture are well-publicized and, having pointed many of them out in the past, I don’t plan to rehearse them again here. While I firmly hold that we must reject such an abusive purity culture, the ethics of empathy are not the solution.
Chastity as Commitment without Guarantee
Some have read my earlier writing of the subject of chastity to be teaching that sexual abstinence prior to marriage will guarantee a fulfilling and happy marriage, with a rich and enjoyable sex life. This reading has surprised me, as I do not hold such a position at all and believed that this should have been clear to anyone reading my writing on the subject. Apparently not. Let me clear this misunderstanding up now.
The relationship between premarital virginity and marriage is not one between a series of sacrifices and the expected pay-off, but between a state where key virtues are learnt and practiced and values are upheld and another differing state where strong forms of those virtues and values will typically be required. The faithful practice of chastity prior to marriage won’t necessarily make one’s marriage easier or happier, but it can be important preparation for being faithful, committed, self-controlled, and willing to sacrifice for others within the context of matrimony.
As I have observed, marriage is deeply coloured by the tragic and it is a seeming inability to reckon with the tragic that seems to characterize many of the parties in the current discourses concerning purity culture. On one hand we see people who have the peculiar notion that abstaining from sex as an unmarried person will guarantee a happy and sexually fulfilling marriage and who fail to speak openly and truthfully about the extensive evidence that it doesn’t. On the other hand we see people who have the no less peculiar notion that, because marriages can be contexts of great tragedy, suffering, lack of fulfilment, loneliness, and frustration, we can’t really be expected to keep or allowed to impose norms of premarital sexual abstinence and sexual exclusivity and lifelong commitment within marriage. We shouldn’t deny the painful and difficult stories of individuals – these stories need both to be told and to be heard – but these stories, although they should excite our compassion, do not negate the principles of behaviour that we are called to abide by.
My conviction that the faithful practice of chastity is a better preparation for marriage than the accumulation of sexual experience is not founded on the belief that it guarantees anything. There are no guarantees whatsoever. Rather, the practice of chastity is the better preparation for marriage because it trains us in the art of dying to ourselves, living for, and being open to Christ and our neighbour.
The accumulation of sexual experience is about approaching marriage in a manner calculated to maximize the chance of sexual self-fulfilment, so that marriage will be more of a known and negotiable quantity. Chastity is about learning to approach marriage with the sort of self-denying determination and commitment necessary to face whatever it might throw at us, in the recognition that marriage will always have the character of an unknown and unnegotiable quantity.
I do not expect marriage to be a cakewalk. I have no doubt that marriage can often be a far more difficult state than singleness, a place of even more profound loneliness, pain, frustration, sexual dissatisfaction, or hopelessness and that even the very best marriages will have these experiences in them on occasions. However, I don’t believe that marriage is so detached a state from singleness as to render the virtues that I am learning and practicing now irrelevant to it.
What chastity gives is not a guarantee of a pleasant and fulfilling marriage, but the formation of character that helps us to be faithful and loving even in a difficult and unfulfilling marriage. As these traits will tend to improve the quality of married life, we should not be surprised that the marriages of those who are chaste prior to marriage will in general prove to be happier and more durable. However, we do not pursue chastity because it is a guarantee of pleasant results, but because it is the form that the life of Christian faithfulness must take. The chief earthly promise attached to this life is not personal fulfilment but suffering.
On Making Judgments Beyond Our Experience
For many of those who place great weight upon personal experience as the locus of truth, the application of frameworks of judgment to contexts beyond our experience can be a cardinal sin. Moral judgments are illegitimate unless we have walked a mile in the other person’s shoes, seen what they have seen, and experienced what they have experienced. For instance, we have never been in the position of the terminally ill person in acute pain, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of euthanasia. We may never have been pregnant in poverty without a partner to support us, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of abortion. We may never have experienced what it is like be trapped in a loveless marriage, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of divorce. We may never have experienced the sexual frustration of living with a spouse who cannot fulfil our sexual needs, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of monogamy. We may never have experienced the hopelessness of the aging unmarried person, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of chastity.
The application of moral judgments to such situations is taken as evidence of a dearth of empathy. We are only equipped to speak of such situations when we have experienced them fully for ourselves and, even then, we must recognize that our experience of such situations is probably incommensurable with that of others. The consequent reticence in all judgment, ethical direction, and articulation of moral norms can be surprisingly pronounced in the context of certain moral debates, perhaps few more so than in the discourse surrounding homosexual practice.
For a younger unmarried person to put forward judgments concerning the morality of chastity and its relationship to the practice and morality of marriage is a sign of considerable hubris on such an account. If anyone has the right to make judgments concerning the morality of sex and marriage, it can only be one who has experienced those realities in all of their potential unpleasantness for themselves.
Yet God does not seem to justify the reticence of many here. The primary teaching on the subject of sex and marriage within the New Testament comes from unmarried men, Jesus and Paul, at least one of whom was also a younger virgin. Jesus and Paul can give difficult teaching on such subjects as divorce, without having to experience the bitterness of an unhappy marriage to qualify them to do so.
The biblical teaching on sex, sexuality, and marriage doesn’t hinge on what it feels like to be married or in a sexual relationship, but on the ends of sexuality, ends which can be ascertained even by the unmarried. In fact, sometimes the ends of sexuality and marriage can best be discerned by the unmarried, as they have an existential distance that can lead to a clarity of judgment and the freedom from the sort of self-serving ulterior motive that can blunt our moral sense. They are also less likely to confuse immediate private ends with greater ends to which those personal ends should be subject. Just as the person in acute pain is probably not in the best position to discuss the ethics of euthanasia, the depressed person to discuss those of suicide, or the businessman lusting after his secretary to discuss the morality of adultery, we are often among the least qualified to judge the moral coordinates of our situations.
Holding Our Selves to Account
The principle of judgment beyond experience is at the very heart of the institution of marriage. Every couple when they get married make profound and binding public vows, promising things whose personal cost they have absolutely no way of ascertaining. For all that one knows, one’s spouse may have a terrible accident within the first year of marriage, leaving you to nurse a mentally disabled spouse and go without sexual relations, deep companionship, and career fulfilment for the rest of one’s life.
One of the reasons why we have marriage vows is because, without being bound by words that articulate overarching principles, the existential potency of one’s ‘personal story’ can become overwhelming, leading one to abandon one’s duty and moral sense. I have no personal awareness of just how difficult it would be to be in the position of the husband nursing a paralyzed spouse, but I commit myself to doing the right thing, precisely so that it will be harder for me to lose my nerve and back pedal if the situation arises. If we are not to make strong normative judgments concerning situations that we have no experience of, we shouldn’t get married in the first place.
One of the very reasons why it can be good to articulate governing principles of behaviour at those times when it is easier to do so is because those public words of moral commitment can come to our aid at points where we have little resolve or our will tends in a very different direction. Personal experience can be one of the most consistently opacifying factors when it comes to moral judgment. I know that, under certain very extreme circumstances, I might consider all sorts of things: euthanasia, adultery, abortion, suicide, or even murder. This is exactly why I am distrustful of the idea that personal experience really provides assurance of moral insight in many areas. Some of the very best people to provide moral insight are those who are detached from the feelings that we are experiencing, because they will be guided by a clearer judgment, rather than swayed by mere sentiment.
Personal stories are some of the most elevated forms of the rationalization of sin and strong feelings are perhaps the greatest motivation to the construction of such narratives. There are rather too many men who have suddenly started to reconsider the biblical teaching on adultery and divorce when they have ceased to be attracted to their wives, their sex lives have fizzled, or they have met someone else that they lusted after. There are principles and values that transcend all of our stories and serve as means of judging and evaluating all of them.
Among the threats to Christian ethics in the contemporary world, empathy stands out as one of the greatest. Empathy is characterized by a very low pain tolerance for suffering and discomfort, both of ourselves and of others (I have commented on some of this here). The resulting concern to avoid and alleviate suffering or discomfort can be very dangerous. Furthermore, as empathy involves a profound openness and vulnerability to the feelings and impressions of ourselves and others, it also involves a higher vulnerability and openness to the rationalizing and self-justifying narratives that are often spawned under the influence of such feelings. This vulnerability is especially pronounced when we are close to persons as family or friends. It is also widely exploited by the media to disorient our moral sense by getting us to identify emotionally with criminals, adulterers, fornicators, and other such characters.
One of the marks of a strong moral sense is the capacity to resist the pull of empathy, to hold one’s nerve and moral bearings in the face of extreme discomfort and under immense pressure. As we look through Scripture and Church history we can see that many of the greatest moral leaders of the people of God were characterized by this ability to resist empathy, to be morally unbending – even ruthless – in situations where common human feeling would pull all others towards compromise. Perhaps one of the greatest charges laid at the door of many of the most famous leaders in Scripture is their capitulation to peer pressure, pity, or indulgence. Empathy – a natural identification with and vicarious experience of the feelings of others – lies at the root of many of these failures. This trait, far from being the great prerequisite for moral leadership and insight that many deem it to be, is one of its greatest liabilities.
It isn’t much reflected upon, precisely because it is so scandalous to contemporary sensibilities, but among the chief common traits of the great leaders of the people of God in Scripture is their peculiar willingness to employ lethal force for the sake of what was right: Moses, Joshua, the judges, Samuel, David, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus’s closest disciples: James, John, and Peter, Paul, etc. The Levites and people like Phinehas were even especially set apart for divine service through radical acts of violent ‘zeal’. Far from being the most empathetic persons that were looked to for moral guidance and leadership, it was the least naturally empathetic who were established by God at the head of his people. Kevin Dutton has commented on the way that the traits that are most associated with ‘psychopaths’ are perhaps especially pronounced among many leading saints: ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and action.
It is the nerve to resist the powerful pull of feelings upon our moral judgment and will that best equips us to be self-disciplined and to lead others.
Empathy vs. Compassion
While the ability to regulate one’s emotions and resist the pitfalls of empathy is a benefit, the danger is that persons that find this easy are prone to be callous and cruel, something that is definitely not to be celebrated. The true alternative to empathy – the close emotive identification with the feeling of others – is not callousness but compassion.
Empathy and compassion are commonly equated with each other. However, I believe that a very important distinction can be drawn between the two. Empathy is an emotive bond with the feelings of others, which takes those feelings as its object, seeking to relieve discomfort, pain, and suffering. While this can often be a good thing, it manifests a number of dangers, not least the inability to gain a broader moral sense of a situation or effectively to cast judgment upon sympathetic wrongdoers.
Rather than being an immediate and emotive connection to other people’s suffering, compassion is a moral relation to other people’s suffering, one mediated by a moral framework. Given the immediacy of empathy’s relation to the other party’s feelings, it tends to be reactive in its attempts to address pain, fastening on the most immediate or visible cause, which is often merely a symptom, rather than the root problem. In contrast, compassion is responsive rather than reactive to the pain of others and involves an impulse to carefully considered action to address others’ pain.
Compassion takes for its object the good of persons, not their feelings. Pursuing the good of ourselves and others will often involve more acute discomfort, or continuing suffering, when that suffering could easily be avoided by taking another route. The empathetic individual, bound up with the feelings of the other person, can be deeply reluctant to cause them further or exacerbated pain, even though that pain may be in their good. By contrast, compassion has sufficient nerve to wound the other person for the sake of their good, like the surgeon prepared to cut into the patient in order to save their life.
When we are suffering, we all too typically want empathy, a non-judgmental validation and sharing of our feelings, stories, and situation. We are less keen about compassion, because compassion, while still involving concern for us, can often invalidate our preferred subjective impression and interpretation of our situation, place it within a broader moral framework, and orient it towards ends that may not be comfortable for us.
An Ethic of Nerve and Compassion
In place of the ethics of empathy, I am arguing for an ethics of nerve and compassion. On the one hand, a robust ethical sense requires an immune system, which can regulate our attachment to the feelings and impressions of others. Such an immune system enables us to resist empathy and pity in certain instances, while leaving us able to identify with others’ feelings in appropriate situations and to an appropriate degree. Empathy binds us to other people’s emotional states. True compassion is only possible for those who are capable of cutting themselves loose, regulating their feelings, and then relating to the other by means of a moral commitment, rather than a purely reactive and affective bond.
The ethic of empathy, bound up with other people’s feelings, struggles with the notion of chastity and the condemnation of fornication. It blanches at the discomfort, shame, and guilt that this causes people and seeks to palliate these, while downplaying the notions that create them. By contrast, the ethic of compassion recognizes that the solution is not to dull the pain of these negative feelings, but that it is appropriate that we should feel shame when we do something shameful. The solution is not to remove our feeling of the nail, or just to sympathize with the sufferer’s experience of their plight, but to remove the nail itself. Christ can address all of our sexual shame at its very root, rather than just numbing our awareness of it. Our shame is a healthy thing, inasmuch as it alerts us to the fact that something is wrong.
This ethic of nerve and compassion does not take its key bearings from feelings, but holds all of our feelings and stories subject to higher principles. It devotes itself to the service of those principles and publicly binds itself by them. It places commitment prior to experience and judgment over feeling. It desires to be held accountable by others and is suspicious of raw feeling and empathy, always testing them against its principles.
As an ethic of compassion, it is radically and uncompromisingly committed to people’s good, even when that good is a painful one. It has a deep concern for others’ pain and suffering, but knows better than to try to remove this altogether. Where it is impossible or inappropriate to remove people’s suffering completely, it will seek to minimize their pain, be present to them in it, and bear it with them.
In the arena of Christian sexual ethics, an ethic of nerve and compassion will be aware that God will often call us to a painful path and that we cannot truly attain to our good without being prepared to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ. By holding our nerve and judgment, we help others to hold theirs, maintaining our commitment, but being present to them in a shared struggle. In such a manner we will become better masters of ourselves and leaders of others, venturing into the future on the basis of a committed response to God’s truth and call, rather than a fickle and reactive relation to experience, feeling, and circumstance.