When Vancouver philanthropists Rosalie and Joe Segal announced a lead gift of $12 million towards a new centre for mental health at the Vancouver General Hospital, I felt deeply moved. I had visited a loved one at the old facility a few years ago and, by any measure, it was a depressing, dilapidated and lifeless space. The new Joseph and Rosalie Segal Family Centre promises to provide 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 a recent Globe and Mail story (“Corporate donation means VGH mental health facility can be built,” January 26), reporter Andrea Woo asked Joe Segal what bought them to this latest philanthropic decision.
There is a common journalistic convention in which many writers introduce a quote by paraphrasing. In this story, Woo wrote that the Segals’ gift “came from a place of empathy,” and then followed with 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 things?
The two vantage points at once 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. For those who don’t naturally feel duty bound, for those whose reverence to any institution, divine or otherwise, is not an obvious standpoint, the moral imperative to give and to help others may not resonate. On the other hand, there are those for whom empathy is difficult, for whatever psychological reason. Perhaps, for them, appealing to a sense of duty is more effective.
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 inside them.
International theory scholar Daniel Levine pointed out that, for a sense of duty to function, citizens need to feel reverence for institutions – even those 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 suggested. “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,” he said.
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, [it] touches a kind of primal anger, which motivates action.”
In Jewish tradition, philanthropy – 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 neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 18:19), is ultimately an empathy imperative.
When it comes to mental illness, it’s especially important to consider both duty and empathy. 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.
Joe Segal is clearly aware of how insidious and invisible mental illness can be, and of the challenges in recognizing and treating it.
As he 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 all of us to live the values of kindness, generosity and compassion.