Empathy and Autonomy

I am a Trekker.  Trekkies are pop culture fans.  Trekkers delve into the socio-political, philosophical and humanistic caveats of the various Star Trek series. We know the word “caveat” and use it correctly. As an adolescent I admired and tried to emulate the character Spock.  I was drawn to the ideal of logic without emotion. Spock and I learned together that emotions play an important role in human society and relationships.  Emotions are messy, undefined and illogical.  Logic is precise, neat, and understandable.   I still prefer logic to emotions.  It is interesting that we are talking about feelings when discussing intellectual traits.   One might assume that intellectual traits would incorporate logic only, yet someone who is truly adept at critical thinking understands that humans are emotional creatures and we are forever influenced by our own emotions as well as the emotions of others.

Today I want to discuss the essential intellectual traits of empathy and autonomy.  Empathy can be simply defined as the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions, the ability to share someone else’s feelings (http://www.merriam-webster.com/).  Autonomy is simply defined as: the state of existing or acting separately from others, the power or right of a country, group, etc., to govern itself, self-directing freedom and especially moral independence (http://www.merriam-webster.com/).  These two topics are far more complicated than the definitions given but we have to start somewhere.

Intellectual empathy vs. intellectual narrow-mindedness  (www.criticalthinking.org.)

To be empathic usually requires a shared experience.  Sympathy is the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune (http://www.merriam-webster.com/).  To be intellectually empathetic, we need to consciously put ourselves in someone else’ shoes that is “Walk a mile in their shoes.”   I remember many times that I just “KNEW” that I was right and then discovered that I was wrong…really, really wrong.  When we encounter someone who is adamant about their belief in something and it is really, really wrong, then we need to be empathetic and gently show them what is right.  To do this we need to reconstruct that person’s reasoning, assumptions and ideas in order to LOGICALLY show them the error.  We also need to be open to correction when we are incorrect.  Here the emotions come into play.  We must be gentle, kind, patient, considerate…Galatians 5:22-23

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.  (RSV)

Narrow-minded people are never wrong.  They refuse correction.  They are brusque, harsh, unkind, and the very antithesis of the Spirit.  Jesus exemplified the fruit of the Spirit.  Do I?  Do you?

Intellectual autonomy vs. intellectual conformity (www.criticalthinking.org.)

Autonomy is a self-governed state where we exist/act separately from others.  We are rarely ever separate from others.  Emotions tie us together.  Perhaps a better explanation of autonomy is the ability to think rationally for one’s self.  I have a master’s degree in biomedical ethics.  The most hotly debated subject is autonomy.  When is a patient old enough to make their own decisions…be autonomous?  When is a patient rational enough to be autonomous?  When is one in control of their beliefs and values in order to make rational decisions?  We want our patients to be able to analyze the evidence (e.g. test results) and make a rational, logical decision about their treatment.  Is a 12 year old capable of such decisions?  Is anyone capable of making such a decision when their life is threatened?  These are questions from bioethics, what kind of questions might we ask in other areas of life?

I often pray for “the wisdom and knowledge to know right from wrong and the strength and courage to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord.”  Is this autonomy or conformity?

I think conformity is when we follow blindly.  We should always be analyzing what we do and why we do it.  There is a difference between FAITH and conformity.  Faith is an assurance for things hoped for whereas conformity is a “whatever, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my life.”

(Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1 RSV)

Faith is active.  Conformity is dormant, intellectually sedentary.

Think about Jesus.  Was He empathetic?  Was He narrow-minded?  Was He autonomous?  Was He a conformist?

Romans 12:2  Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. RSV

Be autonomous.

Be empathetic.

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Catherine Cone

Professor of Biology at East Texas Baptist University

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