Sympathy is merciful compassion for the other person; empathy is feeling what the other person feels. These two are often confused. How often have you heard the cynical remark that Mary’s sympathy for Clara is superficial or insincere just because she doesn’t feel what Clara feels?
But she shouldn’t feel what Clara feels. For what if Clara is paralyzed with sorrow? Would it really be praiseworthy for Mary to feel just the same? She could do Clara no good if she were paralyzed too. Or what if Clara is longing to have her drug habit satisfied? True compassion is in the service of Clara’s good; in this case it longs for Clara not to be satisfied.
As these examples show, not only are sympathy and empathy different things, but they may even be enemies. The former is a virtue; the latter isn’t.
Among other things, this refutes the Impartial Spectator theory of ethics, which holds that we ought to act as a universal empathizer would act – someone who perfectly feels everything that everyone else feels and then acts the way that makes him feel best.
It also explodes the notion so prevalent in our culture that cruelty is denying other people what they feel they must have. Such attitudes destroy friends, undermine love, and even disorder the law.