On Feeling Others’ Pain

Years ago a friend confided at the dinner table that he felt no connection to the events he read about in the paper. He noticed that other people felt appalled or sad or moved by the terrible events they read about, but to him they were just words on paper. He recognized it was strange to have no empathetic response, but he just couldn’t muster one.

I’m the other extreme. I get teary when I hear about the most minimal acts of kindness as well as the most distant suffering. I cried when I saw Solidarity take to the streets in the 80s, and I could barely sleep thinking about people jumping to their deaths on 9/11 or about the suffering and grievous loss following the tsunami and Katrina. I think most people are more like me than my friend at that dinner table.

I don’t take much stock in something like Hume’s notion of an inner moral sense. But there does seem to be a palpable difference in how people respond to the suffering and the joy of others. There’s evidence that this difference is hardwired, but I’d like to think there is more to it than that.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.