• Ruby Illing

How does and can radio play a key role in developing empathy?

Applying it to Aristotle's definition of virtues and Dewey's ideas of reflection.

My MA dissertation


In this essay I will explain why empathy should be understood as a virtue, drawing from an Aristotelian point of view, and why radio is a good tool for mastering it.

Defining Empathy

Philosopher Thiemo Breyer (2020, p.430) describes in his chapter, Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion, how empathy is a fairly new concept compared to sympathy and compassion. Even though it is rooted in ancient Greek, it was not used as term in philosophy at that time (ibid). He breaks down the word:

"Em" could have the spatial meaning "(with)in", the temporal meaning "during", and the figurative meaning "(together) with". "Path" comes from the Greek noun pathos, meaning "suffering" or "passion". Drawing meaning from this empathy is pathos that is experienced with another.

In other words, it is the ability to feel and understand how someone else is feeling in a reasonably objective manner (Davis, 2017, Eienberg 2015, 2003, Toussaint and Webb, 2005). However, a relatively new concept, empathy, is often confused with sympathy, compassion, and personal distress (Breyer, 2020, Eienberg, 2015, 2003, Heidi, 2017). For the purpose of this essay, the definitions are below:

Personal distress

Is feeling distress and self-concern when seeing another's suffering. This will most likely lead to behaviour designed to reduce one's own distress (Eienberg, 2015, Davis, 2017).

  • Turning off the TV when seeing something too upsetting, e.g., shots of people struggling to get out of a war-torn country

  • Transferring the blame onto the person who is upset at your behaviour


Is prosocial behaviour. It is showing that you care (Breyer, 2020, Heidi, 2017, Brown, 2010, Toussaint and Webb, 2005, Eienberg, 2003, Staub, 1978).

  • Hugging someone when they look upset

  • Trying to pick up the mood when someone is upset


Is the ability to feel and understand someone's thoughts and feelings separate from your own (Breyer, 2020, Davis, 2017, Eienberg 2015, 2003 and Toussaint and Webb, 2005).

  • Crying or smiling when you see someone else cry or smile.

  • Forgiving someone for what they have done because you understand the experiences and feelings that drove them to make the mistake.

  • Accepting that you may be more privileged than others, and that you need to keep that in mind when making decisions and conversing with others in your day-to-day life, but not displaying that in a patronising or pitting way.


Is the want to help someone with love and kindness, often better carried out with the understanding of empathy behind it (Breyer, 2020, Davis, 2017, May, 2017, Batson, 2011).

  • Listening to someone, non-judgementally, speak to you about their feelings because you can see that they need someone to talk to.

  • Making someone feel seen, e.g., complimenting someone on something they are proud of because you can see they put in an effort, and you know that it will make them happy to see that people notice.


Is being utterly selfless in your pursuit of happiness for others (May, 2017, Batson, 2011, Eisenberg, 2003)

  • Giving your time to others, e.g., volunteering for the Samaritans

  • Giving your money to charity

Understanding Aristotle's virtue ethics

For Aristotle, the virtues requiring the most consideration were those relating to the human soul since he believed that eudaemonia was the ultimate function and an expression of the human soul (Shields, 2008). 'Eudaimonia' can be defined as human happiness, flourishing, and well-being (Korsgaard, 2008 p.129). Aristotle defined a virtue as a balance, "a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency" (cited in Shields, 2014 p.384). Aristotle believed that "reason is the unique human capacity" (p. 133) and mastering that leads to eudaemonia. Reason is doing the actions of the soul and applying practical wisdom well (p. 151). Having excellent practical wisdom is knowing what the right thing is to do at the right time in any social situation (Shields, 2014 p.386). Aristotle believes that practical wisdom cannot be achieved without moral virtue (p. 134). Empathy could be seen as a moral virtue; it is the ability to understand other's thoughts and feelings. Therefore, it allows us to read a room and know how to act in any situation and "what is good or bad for a human being" (p. 385) which could aid in achieving eudaimonia. However, to be virtuously empathetic comes with the practice of habit (p. 385). We must empathise in a self-aware and reflective manner in order to truly empathise.

Diving deeper into empathy

It in order to master empathy as a virtue we should recognise empathy's multifaceted nature (Davis, 2017 p.112).

The suffering of another is either met by empathic concern or overriding personal distress (Davis, 2017). For the cognitive ability to understand the other's feelings, you must have the ability to regulate your own emotions (Zaff et al., 2003, Eienberg, 2003), thus being able to be responsible for your own personal distress. It depends on how intense the empathic arousal is; if it is too strong, it leads to self-focus and self-concern (personal distress) (Davis, 2017). Hence, those who can effectively regulate their emotions tend to be able to empathise more easily.

Someone with well-developed empathy can step into someone else's shoes and view how their personality and life experience affect the way they think and feel. However, when attempting to understand, we draw from our own experiences. Therefore, we must look at ourselves objectively, become self-aware and understand how we fit into the world. We should be aware that we can make assumptions about people and how they feel. To avoid this, we have to be open to what the person we are trying to empathise with has to say (Morton, 2017). We can never be outstandingly objective, but once we know how our life experiences, perspectives and emotions influence how we make sense of other people, we can reflect on these things and be more objective in our view of other people.

Sometimes our reactions to someone else's thoughts and feelings restricts us from empathising (Brown, 2007). We were praised and rewarded as children for showing that we understand and do good to others. As adults, those feelings of prise are internalised. Instead of showing sympathy to look good in the eyes of an adult or parent, we sometimes practice sympathy and altruism in order to look good in the eyes of ourselves (Batson et al., 1987). When discussing how to help a depressed person, Parker Palmer (2016) argues that the advice we give to a depressed person is not for them but for us to feel better about that person's suffering. It is uncomfortable to be vulnerable in the moment with them (Parker, 2016, Brown, 2007) because that would be empathising and, therefore, feeling how they feel. We would rather give some advice and move on (acting in personal distress). Parker (2016) states

The human soul doesn't want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.

To truly empathise with each other, we must be willing to be present and vulnerable with one another (Brown, 2007).

Some may see empathy as a vice. Empathy can be used as an ideological tool; in the pathos of persuasion, one can create images of heroes to empathise with and enemies to despise (Koureas, 2018, Bloom, 2015). Bloom (2015, 2016) sees empathy as selective. We empathise best with those we identify with the most, those with the same goals and desires as us (Staub, 1978). It also depends on our own beliefs and values, who we think deserves our empathy (ibid). In this echo chamber world of personalised content (Cinellia et al., 2021), it is possible to be manipulated by blindly empathising with one point of view. We can see this happening in the podcast Rabbit Hole (NYT, 2020). It documented men who were radicalised by right-wing YouTubers. We can also see this happening in deregulated US radio with right-wing shock jocks (This American Life, 2019). We could avoid this by viewing empathy as a virtue and practice it in a self-aware manner. We can achieve this through applying a habit of reflection when using our empathy.

Applying Dewey's ideas of reflection to empathy

Dewey (1933) believed that to be reflective in habit one has to master the practice of three virtues:

(1) Open-mindedness: To be free from prejudice, bias (p. 136). A balance between closed-mindedness and empty-mindedness. Dewey (1933: 136) defined empty-mindedness as dismissing your past experiences and blindly accepting each new view that comes to you.

When being empathetic, one should be open-minded in an aware and rational way - understanding someone else's perspective objectively in a broader context and being aware of one's own emotional response.

(2) Whole-heartedness, that is, having 'genuine enthusiasm' (Dewey, 1933: 137). When a person takes on a practice fully, they are absorbed, it carrys them on without diversion (ibid).

For Aristotle, a noble good person "possesses those good things that are fine for their own sake" and "the fine things are the virtues and the actions that arise from virtue" (translated by Rackham, 1935: 471-473). One needs to empathise consciously and enthusiastically for the actual sake of being empathetic. If we empathise unconsciously or our motives are divided, the vices of selfishness and empty mindedness will take over.

(3) Responsibility: To be able to reflect, one must be aware of one's thoughts and feelings and how we fit into the world to achieve a complete understanding (Dewey, 1933: 137).

According to Aristotle, a virtue becomes a state of mind (Shields, 2008: 385). To be reflective with our empathy, we must be constantly aware of how our thoughts and feelings influence how we empathise and assess how wholeheartedly we are empathising.

Applying this to radio

Few listeners, I imagine, think of radio broadcasters as sitting in a small room, but rather disembody and displace them so that they belong equally, if not more, to the place in which they are heard.

(Karpf, 2013 p.19)

When we turn on the radio, we invite the person speaking on it into our space, and they invite us into theirs. A third space is created where we can practice empathy formatively (Tacchi, 1998). A magical imaginary space where our subjectivity and internal voices are diluted by the voices from the radio (Karpf, 2013). The space feels intimate, private, and subliminal because we cannot see or touch it (Karpf, 2013, McLuhan, 1964). Many describe listening to the radio as feeling as soothing and as safe as being back in the womb, listening to our mother's dominant voice and the distant happenings in and around her space (Karpf, 2013).

The safe space allows us to witness souls, a voice could tell us the most intimate thing, and we are less judgemental because there is no face or body to project shame or attach our unconscious bias to. It is a "subliminal echo chamber of magical power to touch remote and forgotten chords." (McLuhan, 1964).

Radio gives the listener a sense of belonging. It gives a regular listener a daily sense of calm; individual voices mark the hours and days, giving it an audio structure (Karpf, 2013 p.16). This provides a "temporal anchor, a bridge between our internal world and diurnal rhythms" (ibid). It gives listeners an escape while giving them the sense of being connected to something bigger, a sense of community (McLuhan, 1964).

Karpf (2013 p.7) goes about describing this "third space" more deeply and explains the concept of the container and the contained: When a baby projects its bad feelings onto its mother, it dis-owns them. The 'soothing mother' transforms them as the baby introjects the soothing feelings back into themselves. A listener can easily absorb the mood of the radio, making them more open to empathising with the voices they are listening to. When put in this safe third space, that which resonates with the comforting womb, listeners feel contained and comforted.

Brené Brown (2007) states in order to empathise, we have to be willing to be vulnerable with someone and argues that shame comes from a lack of sense of belonging, it shuts down understanding and human connection:

We are wired for connection. It's in our biology. …. Connection is critical because we all have the basic need to feel accepted and to believe that we belong and are valued for who we are.

Shame unravels our connection to others. In fact, I often refer to shame as the fear of disconnection— the fear of being perceived as flawed and unworthy of acceptance or belonging. Shame keeps us from telling our own stories and prevents us from listening to others tell their stories.

(Brown, 2017 p.15)

Brown (2017) argues that empathy is the antidote to shame as when we empathise truly, we are present with the other, we regulate our own feelings towards their story to not let them get in the way, and in turn the other feels seen and accepted.

We can see why radio is a great tool for empathising, as we can be present with someone else in this warm and welcoming, safe space. We can also absorb their mood and perspective very easily. However, "the emotional nature of radio as a medium could be exploited through ideological baiting and hitting the nerve points of political controversy" (Cook, 2011 p.143).

Listeners are opening themselves up to being vulnerable by the very act of listening because they cannot interrupt or change the course of the content. They can turn off the radio, but then that would not be listening. Listeners could introject biased perspectives from the radio back onto themselves. Suppose they constantly listen to the same bias radio shows. In that case, they may feel less shameful and understood in having these adopted perspectives because the listener feels they belong to a wider community of people with the same perspectives about the world.

In the examples stated earlier, Rabbit Hole (NYT, 2020) and Alex Jones' radio show (This American Life, 2020), notice that these are white men listening to white men. This is where debates about whether the ego drives our feelings of empathy for another come in (Eisenberg, 2003, Batson, 2011, Batson et al., 1987). However, we can argue that this is when someone is not conscious of how they are empathising, the vice of empty-mindless takes over.

Bloom (2015) argues in an article written for the Atlantic that empathy can lead to aggressive actions, such as asking for harsher sentences because of the story behind a criminal's crime. This is a result of over empathetic arousal. The people who act this way are so shocked by what happened that they cannot regulate their own emotions towards the situation and react as though the situation has happened to them (Davis, 2017). They attach their own beliefs and views to the story (Staub, 1978).

Empathising instead in an open-minded, responsible and wholehearted way would be recognising these emotions as their own and regulating them so that they can listen to the victim's perspective. The victim may want to empathise with their abusers and make sense of what has happened to forgive and move forward. The virtuous empathiser would also empathise with the criminal. They would seek to understand what drove them to do the crime in the first place and want to opt for a more rehabilitative sentence for the criminal's crime.

This ego-driven selective empathy is bound to drive us to questionable decisions because we are not aiming to see all sides of a story. We are othering the ones we do not hear from. We do not welcome them into our subjectivity, the third space. We can see this with the cultural moves towards the more extreme left and right (Applebaum, 2020). Each side feels ostracised by the other (Applebaum, 2020). This is why we should welcome those who we 'other' into the third space radio creates in order to utilise radio as a tool for developing our empathy.

In the history of radio, we can see how it transformed attitudes towards women who were othered in the past. Radio gave women a voice; they were no longer just a wife or a mother; they were a source of information. Carter (1998) outlines Fran Harris' career in US radio. Fran started her career in 1929 in advertising, where she was pigeonholed at first, broadcasting "household hints" (p.79). However, later she went on to have a career in news reporting. Giving voices to women on the radio, such as a Polish Jewish refuge in 1943 who explained that if her family was still in Poland and the Nazis found out that she escaped, her "mother and father will be burned in the ovens" (p.85). She was so well known, she interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady at the time (ibid).

Radio provides a perfect way to witness people's stories unashamedly. A great example of this is the program Anatomy of a Car Crash by Laurence Grissell (2009). The program invites the listener to witness the imperfect souls involved in a car crash. The person who caused the crash and the crash victims talk us through what happened separately. Through listening, we can empathise with everyone involved. We can accept the person who caused the crash and be part of the healing process. This allows us to adopt an objective point of view and, therefore, view situations in our personal life more objectively and try to understand every point of view.

We can only make sense of the world through our subjectivity, but the radio allows us to widen our subjectivity in a world where anything is possible in the theatre of the mind. We can step into other people's subjective, store them up, and use them later to apply in our virtuous practice of empathy.

We can carry this practice on by listening to shows like The Listening Project on BBC 4. Where people are "invited to share an intimate conversation with a close friend or relative, to be recorded, and broadcast" (British Library), whose tagline is "it's surprising what you hear when you listen". Listen to podcasts like This American Life, dedicated to documenting the American life. Last year they produced a podcast called Nice White Parents (NYT, 2020). Where reporter Chana Joffe-Walt, places you right in the story of school integration: a group of "white" parents sent their children into a predominantly "black" school in the name of building a better education. The white parents were very skilled in raising money and raised some for the school. However, the money went to the educational programs that just the white parents wanted for their children and took steps to avoid giving the black families a voice on how they would like to use the money. Chana Joffe-Walt records PTA meetings, interviews with the headteacher and the black and white families, giving us all the perspectives involved, which allows us to be objective but understand when, how, and why these mistakes are being made. Again, encouraging us to view situations in our own lives in a more empathetically objective manner.

Community radio shows have a great way of inviting the listener to be open-minded, calm (regulating one's feelings) and respectful (conscious and self-aware). All things needed when attempting to master empathy:

I can see this in my personal life. BBC Radio London was on almost every day in my kitchen during lockdown, Jo Good, a presenter on the station, played out guided meditation sessions every day and every day, she would get an influx of messages from the listeners thanking her for putting it out. Especially those people who had to isolate alone because it made them feel less alone. Personally, the constant interaction the radio presenters had with the listeners made the reality of lockdown less daunting. It gave me a sense of being in it together with the rest of the BBC London listeners. A sense of togetherness with your community encourages you to understand that everyone deserves a voice (Brown, 2007).

You can see it in the attitudes of the presenters themselves. I spoke to Donna Halper, who used to present for WMMS, a radio station in the US and BBC London radio presenter Robert Elms:

Donna Halper expressed how she "was that friendly voice that made them feel better. I was that person who made them feel understood." Moreover, even though they did not know her, her listeners felt connected enough to send her fan mail where some would "share lots of personal things with" her.

Robert Elms expresses the same feelings - "[presenting] it's about creating an environment where the listeners feel included in what you are doing." He purposefully wants to make his listeners feel as though they belong - "I do my absolute darndest to talk to you like I'm talking to you in a pub… I'll go 'what did you do this morning?' and my producers will talk back like I've just asked them". He finds that others see how personal he gets as strange - "My wife has got annoyed at me in the past sharing personal stuff with my listeners, but that's how I do my job you become their friend". He sees radio as "a two-way process. It's really a conversation between two individuals. It's between me and Lucy in Barnet or me and Harry in Tottenham Court Road, even if he's not tweeting or texting back. That's how you have to think of it as.", "I may not be interested in what the caller or guest is saying but I make myself interested".

We do find ourselves answering back out loud to the radio presenters we have invited into our space. When listening to this type of personable radio where everyone is made to feel welcome, we are bathed in a welcoming and open-minded mood. We feel witnessed and accepted, even though we are not "tweeting or texting back". In turn, we can become more open to witnessing imperfect souls and accept them as human beings.


Many criticise Aristotle because any moral virtue mastered can be used for evil instead of good (Korsgaard, 2008: 133). However, Aristotle believed that if people are driven by eudaimonia (Aristotle translated by Rackham, 1935), they would want to practice these 'moral virtues' for the sake of human good and happiness. As Brené Brown (2007) argued earlier, Aristotle also believed that we are social animals and that friendship is one of the greatest values we can enjoy (Mosely, 2010 p.116). For Aristotle, the purest friendship was one where each individual is valued for themselves, not just for pleasure or what they can give you (Shields, 2014 p.394). One loves the other as one loves oneself (p. 395). When we recognise ourselves for who we really are, as imperfect humans who understand our position in society, not thinking too highly or little of ourselves, one who deserves to feel as though they belong (Brown, 2007, ibid). Only then can we appreciate someone else for who they are. True friends are those we see as a second self (p. 396), people with whom we can share highs and lows with whom we can truly empathise.

Aristotle believed that when we have true friendships, life is lacking in nothing. Don't we all believe that happiness can only be achieved through human connection? Don't we all want what's best for each other? Not wanting the best for someone else comes from jealousy and shame, from a sense of not belonging (Brown, 2007). Radio helps us view others as our friends, wrapped up in their subjectivity we can share their highs and lows. Everyone is welcome in the maternal third space that radio creates. We can let go of our shame and instead belong and learn to empathise with ourselves as we do others in the space. In radio's warm embrace, we can, in the Aristotelian way, become driven by wanting happiness and understanding for ourselves and others.

Bloom (2016) argues that when acting with empathy, we are driven by feelings and not reason, and we do not think of the consequences of our actions. He calls for a less feeling and more "reasonable" compassion as an alternative to empathy. If we look at it that way, we view ourselves as humans who cannot self-regulate or use our feelings rationally. Whether we like it or not, feelings drive us. We should not view our feelings as things we have to ignore, but rather as the things we have to listen to in order to get to the truth. We may get an over empathetic arousal to a human story we listen to on the radio, but why? Listening to others helps us understand and empathise with ourselves. Radio is a welcoming and safe space to practice this, where we can regulate our emotions in a controlled environment. I feel to master the virtue of empathy we must be in a constant cycle of seeking to understand others and questioning our own reactions to the feelings and stories of others. Then, maybe, we will get to the truth of how to achieve eudaimonia for ourselves and others.

A big thank you to Donna Halper for providing her valuable knowledge on the topic and pointing me in a brilliant direction of research.


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