Empathy isn’t seeing, it’s being

2 minute read

Empathy is a wonderful tool. Not just in our design work, but in life. It allows us to understand things from other people’s point of view. It means we make an attempt to walk in their shoes. See things from their perspective. To put it bluntly, empathy is one of the things that keeps us from being total assholes. It’s also how we double-check that our work isn’t falling into some ethical or moral black hole, by attempting to see how it affects people who aren’t us.

Mike Monteiro (2015) Ignorance Beats Empathy

Monteiro yet again hits an important spot.

And our empathy only stretches as far as our experience can take it.

However I also have the impression he’s dismissing empathy too soon, because he’s describing a superficial meaning of empathy.

Understand things from other people’s point of view.

Empathy isn’t just understanding. The true, fuller extent of empathy is exactly feeling as the other – not just seeing things from their perspective. Empathy isn’t just rational understanding (for which pity and sympathy are more appropriate terms). Empathy is being the other person. It’s a deep, radical, profound connection. When one empathizes breathes, thinks, feel, does, sees, as the other.

Even the word says that: empathy is from the greek words “em” and “pathos”. Pathos means “feeling”. Not seeing. Not understanding. Feeling. Goes deep. It’s a transformative experience. It’s hard.

Monteiro is rightly on the issue however if we consider the superficial meaning of the word, the one normally people use. The meaning of the word has been diluted. They are saying “I empathize” when they mean “I understand” or “I see”.

The veil of ignorance thought experiment he uses is valuable because it makes the issue tangible: with the veil of ignorance one doesn’t need to feel / be the other, empathize, one has just to rationalize. If you imagine having a chance to be a slave you can analyze it rationally, which is way easier than truly empathizing with a slave.

But even there, rationality is often lacking. The idea of the Homo Economicus, consistently rational, has been proven a fallacy. There are many people that are living already “the short end of the stick” using the veil of ignorance perspective, but they still behave like they have the “long stick”.

There are plenty of people that believe in the american dream even if they never lived it and they never will. Not because they are stupid, just because it’s statistically so. Thus they don’t want to tax the riches more because of that, even if they aren’t rich themselves.
There are plenty of people against state healthcare, even if they aren’t rich enough to not being worried about thousands of dollars of expenses if something happens.
There are plenty of people against feminism even if they are living in a world where genders aren’t respected equally.

Keep using the veil of ignorance as a good thought experiment, but keep going deeper with your empathy. Achieving that evolves things, thoughts and actions.


From a discussion with Felipe Andrés Torres Sepulveda and Meg Pagani.