Key Ethics Term: Empathy

Empathy is about knowing or understanding how another person feels. Unlike sympathy (feeling badly for another), or emotional sharing (sharing in an emotion with another), they key is that we come to some understanding of how another person feels in their own shoes (i.e. NOT how you would feel in another person’s shoes aka “perspective taking”).

Empathy is controversial. Some argue it isn’t possible or that it requires too much of us (e.g. is overburdensome in the clinical context). Others worry about its tendency to rely on stereotypes (e.g. greater accuracy with ‘in-groups’) or the potential for false/paternalistic empathy (e.g. a failure to ask another but just assume to know how they feel). However, the medical profession also relies on empathy for two important reasons:

  1. When appropriately sensitive and responsive, it can lead to knowledge about how a patient feels that can be critical to medical care.
  2. When appropriately sensitive and responsive, empathic engagement, on its own, manifests respect for the patient and can be critical to building a trusting relationship.