Empathy and its negation as a basis for ethics
Empathy is an injunction to understand the other. We feel the weight of the other's gaze and in recognizing them as human (or part of us) we seek to empathize with them. This injuction however, is impossible to satisfy. We are trapped in the mirror-world of our own consciousness; wherein, everything we see is merely a reflection of that which is inside of us. Consciousness is characterized by intentionality - consciousness is what we view consciously, or with attention (intention). The eye takes in many things, (light streams into the iris from all around at all times) but we are only conscious of that which is viewed intentionally (intentional objects). Everything outside of our intention is outside of consciousness - i.e. subconscious. In order to be conscious of an object we must intend to see it; meaning that what we see is only that which we intend to see. As such, the objects we view are not external to the gaze, but rather are part of the gaze. Objects exist inside our minds rather than without - and the external world cannot be reduced to the objects that we create and place in it. Therefore, objects are mirrors of consciousness, which show only that which is inside our own mind.
The mirror-world is a necessary implication of my subjective existence. Therefore, I can never experience the 0ther as such, because I can only experience myself and my own phenomenological objects. I can never experience the other as the other experiences themselves. Which is to say I can never be 0ther - a literal impossibility as it would require me to cease being myself and become other, which would then render 0ther as part of myself and thereby make it not-0ther (because it is I). Empathy is impossible. I can never know the other, I'm trapped in my own head and can't experience the other as such.
Therefore, how can one satisfy the impossible injunction to empathy, given empathy's impossibility in the face of our subjective existence?
Jean Luc-Marion contemplates this same difficulty in his attempt to chart a philosophical path to love, through the lonely expanse of subjectivity. Here is a passage from Prolegomena to Charity in which Marion finds that it is through a renunciation of seeing the other which allows one to begin to experience the other as such (as alterity):
"Of the face offered to my gaze I envisage only what cannot be seen in it - the double void of its pupils, this void that fills the least empty gazes imaginable - because if there nothing to see there, it is from there that the other takes the initiative to see (me). Gazing on the other as such, my eyes in the black of his own, does not imply encountering another object, but experiencing the other of the object. My gaze for the first time, sees an invisible gaze that sees it. I do not accede to the other by seeing more, better, or otherwise, but by renouncing mastery over the visible so as to see objects within it, and thus letting myself be glimpsed by a gaze which sees me without my seeing it - a gaze which, invisibly and beyond my aims (invisablament), silently swallows me up and submerges me, whether I know it or not, whether or not I want it to do so. The gaze of the other, or better, alterity as gaze, is not 'hypertrophied consciousness, but consciousness that flows against the current, overturning the consciousness' (E. Levinas). Consciousness that flows against the current, indeed the counter-current of consciousness: the other does not become accessible by means of intentional consciousness, but at the price of consciousness's very intentionality. Consciousness, my consciousness, should not claim to reach the alterity of the other by diving into its own depths as intentional consciousness; for intentionality merely radicalizes the irreducible and solitary primacy of the gaze of a subject on its objects. In short, with the best intentionality in the world, consciousness can intend and see only objects, thus forbidding itself the alterity of the other. The other remains invisible to my consciousness, not despite intentionality, but because of it... Of the other, who slips away as visible object, I can only passively experience the invisibility - losing consciousness of him. The other, or my loss of consciousness. But if the very moment wherein my consciousness exteriorizes itself confirms the imperially self-enclosed primacy of my consciousness, that is, if my opening still belongs to me, as the horizon where the sun of my power never sets, is it necessary, if we are to have any hope of loving, to enter into a twilight of all consciousness, to expose ourselves in all unconsciousness to the black sun of an invisible light?" (Emphasis added by me.)
The injunction to empathize - upon which rests ethics most sure foundation and humanities brightest hope - brings us to a point where we are forced to renounce empathy for its own sake (or at least empathy as a conscious project). The other is invisible to our conscious gaze. Therefore in order to understand (or at least get a sense of) the other as such we must turn our gaze away from the other and accept the invisibility, indivisibility, and infinite contingency (or haecceity) that is the essence of the other.
I understand empathy as a dialectic - a conversation between two impossibly irreconcilable positions. We feel the injunction to understand and therefore better accommodate the other, but in so doing we nuetralize the other and render him or her as an object of our intentional gaze (the other slips away as we turn our gaze towards him or her). Therefore, we must turn our gaze, and let the other be other - impossibly unknowable and irreducible to the object(s) of our gaze. This process characterizes ethics. There is a movement towards the other, but that movement can never bridge the gap that separates us from the other (and will broaden the gap if we assume we have grasped the other - thereby creating an idol). Therefore, empathy, love and ethics are never-ending projects whose completion will always allude us. Learn to love the journey. Constant progress and constant set-back (push and pull) is the most we can hope for.