Is Sensitivity A Good Thing?

Awareness of the needs and interests of others is in all religions and ethical philosophies considered a virtue. We may extend that awareness into empathy with the situation of others. Not hurting or insulting others is obviously an ethical directive too.

Now, awareness of and empathy with the needs of others gets itself also called “sensitivity”, but here lurks a very dangerous double meaning. For sensitivity has also meant a prickly amour-propre of the kind that impelled past aristocrats to avenge imaginary insults in blood. Something of the same mentality is found in the modern gangbanger who does not permit himself to be dissed, minus of course the aristocrat’s good manners.
Now, if we urge ourselves to be sensitive to the needs of others, this is accounted a good deed; but that does not mean that urging ourselves to greater sensitivity to our own needs is equally virtuous. Above all, if a man cultivates sensitivity to slights, putting everything under the microscope to magnify the alleged offences of others, this is not the same thing at all and not a good deed. It is united with ethical considerateness only through the word itself, for which alternatives are in fact available.

The danger, of course, is that obsessive sensitivity to imagined slights may hitch a ride on its homophone, sensitivity to the needs and interests of others, and so put in a thumb and pull out a plum and say “What a good boy am I!” Well, no, you’re not. I do not, however, expect to live long enough to see humanity come to its senses and say so.

Leave a Reply