Empathy and conscience are not the same thing.

Empathy-definition

I recently saw this little gem on another website.

If you feel upset, worried, and guilty that you don’t care about others enough, then you don’t lack empathy. That right there shows you you have a conscience. Also guilt is a sign of empathy. If there’s guilt, there’s empathy. There can be no guilt without empathy. No empathy, no guilt because they are part of each other.

I’d like to take issue with this paragraph. The author is stating that feeling guilty or having a conscience means you have empathy. I beg to differ.

Empathy is the ability to feel an emotion with another, to be able to “put yourself in another person’s shoes.” It has nothing to do, really, with having a sense of right and wrong, which is what both guilt and conscience are based on. It’s entirely possible to be a self-righteous, stiff-necked prick and not have an ounce of caring for the way others feel. Think of that teacher you hated. Chances are, that teacher had a very strong conscience and a clear idea of what was right and wrong (and held themselves to the same tough standards they expected you to meet), but thought nothing of making you feel like a wad of old gum on her sensible orthopedic shoes when you violated their lofty standards. It’s also possible to feel guilty over things that aren’t even your fault but be completely oblivious to the feelings of others. Think of the worst covert narcissist you know. Chances are, that person is constantly saying “I’m sorry” and flagellating themselves until they draw blood, but their over the top guilt stems from a need to prove they’re really a good person, not because they really care that they just put your feelings through a cheese-shredder. They aren’t going to feel your pain with you–they just want to redeem themselves and have you forgive them.

Empathy and conscience do often go together though–they’re like the peanut butter and chocolate of the world of emotions–and I don’t think it’s possible to be a high empathy person and at the same time have no conscience or the inability to feel guilt or shame. But to assume that a strong conscience or the ability to feel guilt automatically indicates high empathy just makes an ass of u and me. All having a strong conscience or sense of guilt means is you’re not a sociopath.

3 thoughts on “Empathy and conscience are not the same thing.

  1. 100% agreement here. So spot on center. Well said, well written. (although I’m not sure about having a conscience not being a sociopath…) Empathy is walking into a room where someone is in tears and joining them in their pain before you have the slightest idea of why they weep. Sometimes I think it’s more of a curse than a blessing — but I get that way about life in general, LOL. Thank you for posting this. SOOOO much in agreement with you!

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  2. “…their over the top guilt stems from a need to prove they’re really a good person, not because they really care that they just put your feelings through a cheese-shredder….”

    You nailed it, Lucky. Brilliantly.

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