The Ethics Of Empathy

The Ethics Of Empathy

Author:   Cael SpiritHawk 

Some months ago, a few of the members of my Grove expressed concerns over the ethics of using empathy, in various circumstances, to “read” other people’s emotional state. We ended up holding a discussion night about it, and several of our members shared their thoughts on the matter. I wrote down my opinion and posted it in the “Philosophy” section on the forums at my Grove website at, and recently I found it again and thought I would share it here. I’ve edited it slightly, but what follows is essentially the same post I made at the time.

People have different levels of perception in all of their senses; one person may hear poorly and see very well, another may do both poorly, and another may hear with extreme acuity and be completely unable to see. No one can make any assumptions about the sensory perceptiveness of any other random person on the street. If you’re sitting in a Starbuck’s, having a quiet conversation with your friend, you can guess that the people at the table on the other side of the shop cannot hear you, but you have no way to actually know. You might think that the barrista cannot see the sketches you’re drawing to explain something to your friend, but you don’t know for sure; she might.

Walk through a busy place some time: an airport, a mall, a supermarket. Pay attention to what you see and hear. You can hear people talking, you can see people gesturing to one another, and you can see the expressions on their faces.

The sounds of words are carried to you by the energy of compression waves in the atmosphere. The image of a person’s hands and face are carried by electromagnetic energy (light) .

Back to the coffee shop. Pretend you are sitting across the room from the pair of friends who are talking and sketching. You’re reading a book, so you’re not looking at them. But one of them raises her voice, and it sounds to you as if she’s frustrated. You can’t hear the words yet, but her tone is clear; she’s upset. Then her friend stands up, and he begins shouting, and this time you can hear the words. He tells her that it’s not that he doesn’t understand her, it’s that he does, but he thinks she’s wrong. He holds up the paper they’ve been sketching on, and you glance at it and see what they’ve been drawing.

Now, arguably none of this is your business, because you have not been invited to participate. But the energy (sound and light) that they have been putting out has come to you, and it is in every creature’s nature to accept and act upon received information. So you have perceived (because of her tone) a general state of frustration from the girl. You have perceived more precisely (because of his tone and actual words) that her friend believes she is wrong in her position. And you have perceived (by seeing it directly) that what they are talking about seems to be the layout of an advertising flyer that perhaps they’re working on.

Three levels of perception: General, specific, and precise; gained from three types of passive observation – tonal, verbal, and visual.

Now you know something about those two people that you did not know before. Have you been unethical? Not yet. Because you have received only that which they have given freely in your presence. If you took that knowledge and decided to use it in an unethical way, then you have crossed a line. If you moved to a different seat to be able to listen better, would that be unethical? Probably.

But suppose you reached the conclusion that the man is so agitated that he might become violent. Would it be unethical for you to gather your things and leave, based solely on what you’ve seen? Not at all – it would be prudent.

So it is with empathy. Just as words are carried outward through sound energy, and facial expressions are carried outward through electromagnetic energy, emotions are carried outward by the energy of Spirit. Just as there are people who see well and people who see poorly, there are people who are very perceptive of emotional energy and there are people who perceive it poorly, if at all.

When a person is feeling a strong emotion, their spiritual energy is broadcasting that emotion to everyone in their proximity, just as the look on their face is broadcasting that emotion. If they’re laughing or crying or shouting, the emotion is carried by sound as well.

People can learn to hide their facial expressions and contain their verbal expressions. Likewise, they can learn to control the emotional energy they are sending out on the spiritual plane. But most people do none of these.

So where are the ethics lines drawn with perceiving this spiritual energy of emotion (a perceptiveness we call empathy)? They’re more obvious than many people would believe: they’re drawn in the same places that they’re drawn for any other sense.

If a person is shouting, you cannot help but hear. If a person is smiling, you cannot help but see. If a person is broadcasting emotion, and you feel it, you have not violated their privacy, because as an empathic-perceptive, you cannot help but feel what they feel.

The boundaries come in two places: When you try to pry, and when you try to use the information you receive in a harmful way.

Just as it’s wrong to eavesdrop on someone’s phone conversations (because you’re listening to something that has not been freely offered in your presence), and just as it’s wrong to peer between someone’s bedroom blinds at night (because they’ve put the blinds down for a reason), it is wrong to use empathy to try to ferret out information that a person is not offering up freely.

It’s wrong to pretend to know someone, in order to get them to trust you, because you’ve overheard their name in a conversation. It’s wrong to take down a stranger’s phone number that you’ve seen as they write it down for a friend. Likewise it’s wrong to use the knowledge that you’ve obtained through empathy to give yourself an advantage over the person you got it from.

If a person has given you permission to use your empathy, of course, the rules all change. Empathy can be a powerful therapeutic tool, because the emotions that a person is putting out empathically may be different from the emotions he or she thinks are there. A trauma from the past, a phobia, a deep-rooted anxiety, all of these can come out on the empathic plane, while a person feels uncontrollably giddy but can’t explain why.

Empathy is a tool, just like hearing, sight, and even our hands are a tool. It’s not the possession of a tool that is ethical or unethical; it’s the way we use it. It can be used in helpful or harmful ways, just as any tool can.

If we remember that we are given gifts to allow us to better take care of each other, it’s much less likely that we will violate ethical boundaries. If you are a person who is gifted with strong empathy, use it. You were given it for a reason. But use it in the way you would use any other tool; with care, and with forethought, and with a respect for the people that you are affecting. Listen with it for things that are a danger, so that you may avoid them, and listen with it for people who are in need, so that you may be available to help them when they are ready for it and open to it.

It’s very difficult to violate ethical boundaries when your guidelines are respect for others and respect for yourself.

You would not gouge out an eye for fear of seeing someone’s tears; why would you reject the empathy that might help you understand the reason for those tears, so that you might help to solve it?