Rowan Williams – ‘Ethics and Empathy’

6th June, University of Winchester

Last week I had the privilege of attending a lecture at the University of Winchester, given by Rowan Williams. I had no previous knowledge of the subject matter but I went just to hear him speak on his title ‘Ethics and Empathy.’ I wasn’t disappointed as it was a very interesting lecture, which was more ethical philosophy than theology, although the lecture naturally led towards a theological sequel. I found an audio recording from the University of Cambridge website, which appears to be exactly the same lecture, so if you would like to listen to it this is the link.

I will summarise it in three brief sections. I will just say here in a word of evaluation that I found it quite convincing, and on hearing this side of the conversation, I couldn’t object to very much of what Williams said.

Empathy is more popular than it used to be

Williams began by saying that the topic of empathy is in vogue, and lots of people are talking about it. He cited numerous examples of people claiming that empathy is essential to moral development, that to empathise well is in effect to be moral. Empathy cannot oppress another. If you feel another’s pain and suffering, or their need, then you will inevitably help that person, or act in a moral fashion.

He particularly interacted with ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy’ author Simon Baron-Cohen, who claims that ‘evil is empathy corrosion.’

Williams – ‘This is wrong’

Williams then went on to say that he disagrees with these statements for various different reasons. The broad reason that he gave is that ethics is a linguistic and cultural phenomenon, encompassing power, politics, religious faith and so in. In short, ethics is much more than simply whether or not one is able to empathise, or, in response to Baron-Cohen, empathy erosion is not the whole story of evil. Consider issues concerning the distribution of power on a geopolitical level, for example, how will empathy help us with that?

Or think about the example of a Ugandan militia: the leader has two prisoners who are relatives, and he forces one to execute the other. In this case the militia leader is able to perpetrate greater evil precisely because he can empathise with the pain it will cause to the first prisoner to execute a family member. Empathy leads to more moral evil, not less.

Or The Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, who, precisely because he empathises with human beings’ sadness and grief at being free, will subjugate and enslave humanity. In the parable, the inquisitor is pictured as opposing a silent Christ-figure who, in contrast to the inquisitor, has come to bring freedom to mankind.

Edith Stein

Finally, Williams introduced us to Edith Stein, who wrote her PhD dissertation on empathy, to help us understand empathy better. For Stein, empathy is not about being able to feel exactly what another person feels. On the contrary, it is about a human being recognising his or her situatedness. That is, I am one person, who inhabits a particular perspective, and I do not understand what it is like to be another – not fully anyway. He gave the example of Cybil Faulty saying, ‘Oh I know,’ in response to the problems of others. The humour comes in that fact that she didn’t know, and that she was being insensitive to the person to whom she was speaking.

He summarised her definition of empathy as, ‘A failure to understand the limits of my point of view, resulting in two sets of knowing: an enhanced awareness of that environment and an indirect sense of some of what it might be like to experience the environment from that standpoint.’ In other words, empathy is less ‘I know,’ and more ‘I don’t know, but I can try to imagine, and that might give me an idea of what it might be like.’

I see where he is coming from when he says this, but I always thought that empathy meant that, in simple terms, you know how something feels, and so you can sympathise in a more direct way with the person who is experiencing that thing. I can’t empathise with what it feels like to give birth, but I could sympathise if I was in the delivery room with someone who was. I could empathise if I had given birth, because then I would know what it feels like, but I don’t, so I can’t.

Maybe I’m wrong about that, and my thinking needs readjusting. What do you think?

12 Miles

I felt very emotional as I came the end of my long run this week. I ran along North Walls road towards my house with the Eurovision Song Contest winning song Hard Rock Hallelujah pumping through my headphones at full volume. I experienced a sense of chilling euphoria and almost began to weep. It was a strange feeling, and I think it must have been more due to the sustained physical exertion than to the moving and powerful lyrics of Scandinavian supergroup Lordi.

I’ve been doing a lot of sitting on my sofa watching the World Cup, so it’s been extra-important to get outside and hit the pavement regularly. Although England lost their first game against Italy, I felt inspired by the do-or-die attitude of the team, particularly the younger players who are just coming through, and I though, “Yeah. I’m English too. I can do it.”

I managed my target of a successful twelve mile run yesterday. I wasn’t sure how I felt physically when I first set out, and I was annoyingly held up for about thirty seconds by a very large vehicle during my first mile. But I managed to keep going, running out to Otterbourne and back, keeping my average pace to just over a mile every nine minutes, which was my aim. I calculate that if I manage to run the marathon with an average pace of nine miles a minute then I will complete it in under four hours, which would be a great time for me.

Here is a snapshot of my results:


Today, I feel sore in various areas. Left foot aches as though the bones are bruised. Left knee has a sharp pain when I stand. Right calf muscle feels tight and causes me a limp. And so on. But I must press on towards my goal, no matter how bad the pain gets, no matter what the cost.

Next week, I will carry on my journey, and attempt to reach the half-marathon mark: thirteen miles.

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11 Miles

It’s been two weeks since my last running update. That’s because I failed to accomplish my 11 mile target last week, having slightly strained a hamstring while playing football.

I’m happy to say that today I managed it, albeit quite slowly. I ran round our local park with my dog Quentin about 11 times and broke the barrier that had frustrated me. I found it hard going, and I think for some reason I have been running slower and feeling more tired over the last week. Here are my stats:20140609-172806-62886650.jpg
Not brilliant. But at least I did it, and I can push on next week and achieve 12 miles.

When I finished the run, I took a post-run selfie with Quentie and I’ll post it up to finish. Enjoy!


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