The relationship between morality and emotion has divided thinkers for centuries. Most contemporary ethical systems demand impartiality; that we should not allow emotion, particularly empathy, to distract us from doing what is morally right. In this article, Heidi L. Maibom rejects this position. Here, she argues that empathy is both an essential and necessary tool to understanding human nature, and provides a blueprint for how we should devise our moral systems.
To most people, it seems obvious that empathy has something important to do with morality. After all, when we feel with someone who suffers, we often think it is wrong that the person suffers, and if someone has caused their suffering, we tend to think they were wrong to do so. Saints, like Saint Francis or Mother Theresa, are typically moved by their concern for the suffering of others. And I, at least, use my empathy as a moral guide. If I empathize with the suffering of caged animals, say, I begin to think that caging animals is wrong. Morally wrong.
It might therefore come as a surprise to realize that a handful of philosophers and psychologists have concluded that since we sometimes don’t feel empathy when we judge something to be wrong or act morally, and since we can empathize without judging a wrong to have been committed or, indeed, without being motivated to act morally towards someone, empathy has no role in morality. And not just that, Jesse Prinz and Paul Bloom claim empathy actually is bad. Why? Because empathy focuses our attention on just a handful of people whereas morality require us to care equally for all, itmakes us make worse choices.
The key disagreement about the role of empathy in morality boils down to this question. Can we truly understand what matters to other people, what moves them, what damages their wellbeing, and so on without empathizing with them?
Considering these powerful criticisms, it seems surprising that philosophical heavyweights, such as David Hume and Adam Smith, could have thought empathy was foundational to morality. It is, Smith argued, because others’ suffering makes us suffer that we come grasp their suffering as suffering, and through our own suffering come to care about it and regard it as a prima facie case of something wrong. Smith also thought that the way we avoid bias and partiality is by taking the perspective of a so-called Impartial Spectator. Such a spectator is not emotionally involved in what is happening, knows all the relevant facts about it, and is indifferent to the goals and interest of the people involved. This, Smith claims, allows us to make true moral judgments and it would avoid the charge of bias, since she cares no more for one person than any other.
The key disagreement about the role of empathy in morality boils down to this question. Can we truly understand what matters to other people, what moves them, what damages their wellbeing, and so on without empathizing with them? Empathy skeptics say “yes, of course.” I’ve said so myself in the past. Empathy enthusiasts, on the other hand, insist that no, you cannot. Of course, they do not deny that one can think, in a superficial and detached way, about the fact that others suffer, are in pain, have their lives ruined, or their dreams squashed. What they do tend to insist on is that to appreciate other’s plight the way we would appreciate our own, that is really appreciate it, we need empathy. We cannot—and this is a point stressed by Smith—appreciate the suffering of our fellow man without experiencing something similar ourselves as we are exposed to that suffering. Without this kind of sensitivity, morality would not move us because morality is centrally concerned with the wellbeing of people.
Much of the debate has centered on emotional empathy. What is often ignored is empathy as perspective taking. This is because there is an insufficient appreciation of the contrast between our immediate, unreflective way of experiencing the world and our more reflective way of doing so. The two are not entirely distinct, of course, since they affect one another, but there is nonetheless an important difference between the way we interact with our environment as agents in it and the way we reflect on it as observers of it. These are two aspects of a first-person perspective.
To get a sense of such a perspective, we might reflect upon that fact that we usually find ourselves at the center of everything. We experience the world as extending out from ourselves, as relating to this being that we are. We see things as near or far, now or later, dangerous or delightful, often without realizing the egocentricity at the heart of these judgments. The tree is near to me, the journey is dangerous for me, and so on. There is nothing wrong with this orientation. It may even be necessary for survival. It is one that makes us see the world in terms of us, in terms of what matters to us. Our emotions are prototypical examples of our natural self-centeredness. I am frightened by things that might harm me, delighted by things that can do me good, and surprised by thing I did not expect. Richard Lazarus said that emotions represent the way the world affects our wellbeing.
If you think morality is at least about ensuring the greatest amount of wellbeing for each person compatible with the greatest amount of wellbeing for everybody else, then you should be on board with empathy playing a central role
It doesn’t take much to see that a fuller understanding of the world, other people, and even ourselves requires us to see beyond our first-person perspective. How do we do that? By taking other people’s first-person perspectives. As it turns out, the way we think of ourselves and the way we think of other people is subtly different. In our own case, as agents, our thoughts are windows onto reality, experiences and emotions are salient, actions are seen to flow naturally from our reasons, which are firmly rooted in reality, and what is central to who we are and what we do is internal: our good intentions, our motivations, and so on. When, however, we think of other people, as observers of them, their beliefs are very much beliefs, which might be mistaken, and over which they have substantial control; we think of them as more influenced by their environment and external rewards, we tend to focus on why they did as they did and the overall context and consequence of their actions. (I provide a fuller explanation of these difference in my book The Space Between: How Empathy Really Works).
These subtle differences add up to substantially different, intuitive, pictures of ourselves and other people. To see others as they would see themselves or me, for that matter, I need to take their perspective. This includes, not only as Smith pointed out feeling with them in their travails, but also understanding what is important, or what matters, to them in virtue of representing this in terms of the centrifugal force of our egos. As opposed to Smith, however, I don’t think we ought to take the perspective of an Impartial Spectator, but that balancing a range of different perspectives is sufficient to overcome the natural bias of empathy.
Why now, we might ask, does what matters to others matter to morality? There is a long and a short answer to this. I will spare you from the long one. If you think morality is at least about ensuring the greatest amount of wellbeing for each person compatible with the greatest amount of wellbeing for everybody else, then you should be on board with empathy playing a central role. One could even argue that other moral ideas such rights, justice, and freedom all eventually spring from their role in ensuring human welfare. It is, of course, conceivable that there are moralities in which empathy plays little or no role, but it is not our morality. And it is not any possible morality we ought to be concerned with, but with our own or plausible extensions thereof.