President Obama’s job
approval rating
has dropped markedly in the past year or so, from 67 per
cent in May 2009, down to 43 per cent in November 2010. More Americans now
disapprove of the President’s job than approve of it – 49 per cent to 43 per
cent. Adding to the President’s woes is the “shellacking” received by the
Democrats in the recent Congressional elections, with Obama’s own admission
that “we lost track of the ways we connected with the folks who got us
here in the first place.” The problem was more acutely summarised
by retiring Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen (D):

“There doesn’t seem to be
anybody in the White House who’s got any idea what it’s like to lie awake at
night worried about money and worried about things slipping away […] They’re
all intellectually smart. They’ve got their numbers. But they don’t feel any of
it, and I think people sense that.”  

Is it possible to read comments such as these and not think
immediately of President Obama’s much vaunted empathy?

In a 2006
to college graduates, then Senator Barack Obama hailed the
importance of empathy:

“There’s a lot of talk in this
country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our
empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see
the world through those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the
laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”

In his book The
Audacity of Hope
, published two years later, Obama expanded on the theme of

It is
at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—not
simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a
call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.


I believe a
stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in
favour of those people who are struggling in this society. After all, if they
are like us, then their struggles are our own. If we fail to help, we diminish

And in case we are in any doubt,
Obama’s closest colleagues

He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people
he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny
ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them and make
sense out of them”

Is it really a lack
of empathy that people are sensing from their President – a man who
specifically promoted empathy as a personal moral code, a political panacea,
even the criterion by which to select
Supreme Court Judges? How could Obama have failed to exhibit the very quality
at the heart of his personal moral code?

In fairness, it’s not Obama’s fault. Empathy is no more
than a recent
drawn from the fields of philosophy and art appreciation theory,
which somehow enjoys special prominence in modern culture. Unfortunately for
Obama, it is simply not as grand or important an idea as the present culture
would have us believe. Firstly, empathy defies clear definition. Some will call
it “putting yourself in another person’s shoes”, an act of thinking. Others will identify it as an act of feeling, to share in the emotional experience of another person. It
can also be presented as an amalgam of thinking and feeling, using first one,
and then the other to get inside someone else’s footwear.

Why is empathy hard to define? The simple answer is that it
doesn’t really exist. The concept – or the word at least – wasn’t invented
until 1858, and even then, it was only in German. We Englisch-Sprechende would
have to wait until 1903 before we could start empathising formally. Is it
really possible that this thing called “empathy” only emerged circa 1900?

Obama defines empathy as “the ability to put ourselves in
someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from
us.” But these are just metaphors. The reality behind “putting myself in
someone else’s shoes” is simply to imagine myself in that person’s
circumstances. But can I really
imagine what it is like to be an immigrant woman cleaning dorm rooms? How
realistically can I imagine what it is like to be a laid-off steelworker? No
wonder Obama says that this act of imagination is more demanding than sympathy
and charity. We cannot really put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, because
our imagination is always limited and subjective. We can try to understand
another person’s circumstances, but it borders on condescension to claim that
we are able to see the world through someone else’s eyes. As an act of
imagination, empathy risks becoming mere pretence, deluding ourselves with
false insights into other people’s lives.

But the real problem is what lies behind empathy. Obama
praises empathy as a means “to see the world through those who are different
from us — the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman
cleaning your dorm room.” Yet the point of the Western ethical tradition is that
other people are not really different from us at all. It should not take an act
of imagination to identify with a hungry child, a laid-off steelworker or an
immigrant cleaning-woman, because at heart we all share a common humanity. I do
not have to stand in the shoes of a hungry child to know that the child needs
and deserves to be fed, nor pretend to be a laid-off steelworker to know that
it is terrible for the steelworker to be laid off.

Before 1903, we called it sympathy. Sympathy
means “fellow-feeling”, and is based on actual affinity between people. If I
stub my toe, you feel my pain; not because you have used observation and
imagination to see the world through my eyes, but because you have toes of your
own and you too have felt pain. This is our affinity or “sameness”: we feel the
same, because we fundamentally are the same.

Somehow, our culture has begun to identify sympathy as a
form of condescension, akin to what we now call “pity”. Naturally, we recoil
from any suggestion that other people might be looking down on us in our
struggles. So empathy has become the new virtue, a contemporary gloss on the
golden rule. But empathy is a false virtue, based on a false premise of human
difference, and an undue faith in our power to imagine another person’s life.

growing criticisms of Obama’s presidency show up the flaws in an empathic
approach to life: people do not need a leader who thinks he can imagine how
they feel, they need a leader who already shares their feelings and priorities.
The president should not have to “see the world through those who are
different”, simply because there is no one so different that their ordinary
fears and concerns cannot be shared by the highest office-holder in the land.

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics
Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...