Criminals do empathy too

Criminal activity needs empathy too. Understanding how other people feel and think doesn’t just help relieve suffering; it may also increase it. Every time someone falls for a confidence trickster and hands over their savings, the processes of empathy have been at work, as the criminal finds the best way to convince the victim.

This is an uncomfortable idea because we usually mix empathy with compassion. But if empathy is about taking the perspective of another person, it remains an ethically, or morally, neutral activity.

That’s why, when we started the EDiCT project last year, we came up with a description of what we want empathy to mean in conflict transformation and peace building. And we built in an ethical commitment. We called this ideal or goal for conflict transformation “empathic understanding”.

Empathic understanding for conflict transformation has four strands:

(1) The other person is a complex individual

(2) and that’s OK. Differences are accepted.

(3) The other is entitled to full human rights.

(4) All people involved have ways to deal with the emotional tension generated by (1) – (3).

We made the ethical commitment visible in (3). When people speak of empathy and mean compassion, their ethical commitment remains unspoken and assumed. By making it visible and explicit, we are required to consider what follows.

4 Responses to “Criminals do empathy too”
  1. Janet says:

    I really appreciate further definitions of what empathy means. More often than not I find myself explaining empathy to people (because they assume I mean compassion or sympathy). The hardest explanations come when speaking of criminals, because people assume I’m saying ’empathy’ to mean ‘forgiveness’.

    A close friend asked me, “how can you have empathy for a serial killer?” The answer I gave him was that I didn’t really know, if a serial killer was standing in front of me, how I would feel (if I would be able to empathize). What I did know is that I would want to empathize with her. I would want to try to listen to her feelings and perspectives, and put myself into her shoes. Like you said above, I would want to treat them as a complex individual with a different perspective (and that’s okay) and entitle them to full human rights.


    • Lynne Cameron says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’d add that doing empathy is not the end of the story. We are not suggesting that terrible crimes are condoned. Beyond the frame of empathy are multiple other dimensions of the kind of issue you raise: an individual’s moral choices, the social responsibilities that come with human rights, criminal law, empathy with victims, etc etc.

  2. morganp63 says:

    Yes, the other person is complex, so am I. Not sure about putting oneslf in another shoes, how about – how do I feel about the individual? Otherwise perceptions become muddy and not clear-thinking.

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