When Vancouver-based philanthropists Rosalie and Joe Segal announced a lead gift of $12 million towards a new centre for mental health, I felt deeply moved. I had had occasion to visit a loved one at the old facility a few years ago. By any measure, it was a depressing, dilapidated and lifeless space. The new facility promises the kind of physical atmosphere of compassion and dignity so necessary to recovery.
The planned $82 million centre is slated to open in 2017. In recent Globe and Mail coverage, a reporter asked Joe Segal what brought them to this latest philanthropic decision.
I’ll depart here for a moment to mention that there is a common journalistic convention whereby the writer introduces a quote by paraphrasing. In this case, the reporter said that the Segals’ decision “came from a place of empathy.” Then came the actual quote from Joe Segal: “You have an obligation, if you live in the community, to be sure that you do your duty.”
Are empathy and duty the same thing?
The two vantage points at first seem quite different. Empathy is about actually experiencing the plight of another. There is clearly an affective component. Duty somehow feels more legalistic, perhaps even at odds with emotion. As philosopher Immanuel Kant famously said, “Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law.”
If empathy is more about feeling, experience and emotion, and if duty is more cognitive and legal, it seems we need to be concerned with how to summon both values across society. I turned to colleagues to help me better understand the relationship between the two concepts. For some, a viscerally emotional connection between the two is indeed present.
International theory scholar Daniel Levine points out that, for a sense of duty to function, citizens need to feel reverence for institutions, even those that we ourselves have created. Or, perhaps having created laws and ways of living for ourselves is precisely what motivates a sense of duty, “we revere it precisely because it’s ours; we are the sovereign,” Levine suggests. “We are free because we legislate and judge for ourselves.”
For professor of Jewish philosophy Zachary Braiterman, the cognitive and emotional elements are intertwined, “duty has an affective element, an excitement of the senses around a task at hand.”
And, for Jewish filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, “duty flows from empathy, in that moment when I connect the suffering of another to my own experience and that touches a kind of primal anger which motivates action.”
In Jewish tradition, philanthropy – or tzedakah – is considered a legal imperative. The Hebrew word itself shares a root with righteousness and justice, and it does not contain the affective aspects that the Greek-based word philanthropy does, meaning love of humankind.
Empathy in general seems to be less obviously discussed in Judaism, until one realizes that the Torah’s golden rule – “Love your neighbor as yourself” – is ultimately an empathy imperative.
When it comes to mental illness, it’s especially important to keep both duty and empathy in mind. Empathy can be extra hard to summon towards those who are in the throes of the disease. Some forms of mental illness cause sufferers to refuse treatment. Some victims act socially or otherwise inappropriately. Sometimes the sufferer no longer even seems like the actual person.
The Segals are clearly aware of how insidious and invisible mental illness can be, and the challenges around recognizing it and treating it. As Joe Segal told the Globe and Mail, “Mental health was under the rug, and we tried to lift the rug so it can become visible.”
It’s a powerful reminder of how empathy and duty are important elements in building a better society – both for helping those in personal crisis and for enabling us all to live the values of kindness, generosity and compassion.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.