Graduate studies at Western
In Amy Coplan & Peter Goldie (eds.), Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
|Abstract||It is widely believed that empathy is a good thing, from a moral point of view. It is something we should cultivate because it makes us better people. Perhaps that’s true. But it is also sometimes suggested that empathy is somehow necessary for morality. That is the hypothesis I want to interrogate and challenge. Not only is there little evidence for the claim that empathy is necessary, there is also reason to think empathy can interfere with the ends of morality. A capacity for empathy might make us better people, but placing empathy at the center of our moral lives may be ill‐advised. That is not to say that morality shouldn’t centrally involve emotions. I think emotions are essential for moral judgment and moral motivation (Prinz, 2007). It’s just that empathetic emotions are not ideally suited for these jobs. Before embarking on this campaign against empathy, I want to say a little more about the target of the attack. What is empathy? And what would it mean to say empathy is necessary for morality? With respect to the first question, much has been written. Theories of empathy abound. Batson et al. (1995: 1042) define empathy as, “as an other‐oriented emotional response congruent with the perceived welfare of another person.” This is not the definition I will be using. Batson’s construct might be better characterized as “concern,” because of its focus on another person’s welfare. Indeed, in much of his research he talks about “empathetic concern.” Notice that this construct seems to be a combination of two separable things. Being concerned for someone is worrying about their welfare, which is something one can do even if one doesn’t feel what it would be like to be in their place. One can have concern for a plant, for example, and an insect, or even an artifact, like a beautiful building that has into disrepair. Empathy, seems to connote a kind of feeling that has to be at last possible for the object of empathy. If so, “empathetic concern” combines two different things—a find of feeling‐for an object and a feeling‐on‐behalf‐of an object. Much of the empirical literature, including the superb research that Batson has done, fails to isolate these components, and, as a result, some of the existing studies are confounded. They purport to show the value of empathy, but may really show the value of concern. My focus below will be on empathy, and I leave it as an open possibility that concern is highly important, if not necessary, for morality. Indeed, concern often seems to involve an element kind of moral anger, which I will argue is very important to morality. It is also important to distinguish empathy from sympathy. Suppose I feel outraged for someone who has been brainwashed into thinking she should follow a cult leader who is urging mass suicide. That would not necessarily qualify as empathy. As Darwall (1998: 261) points out, sympathy is a third‐person emotional response, whereas empathy involves putting oneself in another person’s shoes. But 1 Darwall’s definition is also somewhat problematic. He says, “Empathy consists in feeling what one imagines he feels, or perhaps should feel (fear, say), or in some imagined copy of these feelings, whether one comes thereby to be concerned … or not.” This definition has two features, which I would like to avoid. First, the appeal to imagination seems overly intellectual. Imagination sounds like a kind of mental act that requires effort on the part of the imaginer. As Darwell recognizes, empathy in its simplest form empathy is just emotional contagion: catching the emotion that another person feels (Hatfield et al., 1994; Hoffman, 2000). It seems inflated to call contagion an imaginative act. Also, I want to resist Darwall’s application of “empathy” to cases where one has a feeling that someone should feel, but does not feel. The problem is that this tends to blur the distinction between empathy and sympathy. Suppose I encounter a member of a cult who is delighted by the cult leader’s nefarious plans. The cult member should by afraid, but is not. If I feel fear on the cult member’s behalf, that is not putting myself in the cult member’s shoes. As I will use the term, empathy requires a kind of emotional mimicry. I do not wish to imply that empathy is always an automatic process, in the way that emotional contagion is. Sometimes imagination is requires, and sometimes we experience emotions that we think someone would be experiencing, even if we have not seen direct evidence that the emotion is, in fact, being experienced. For example, one might feel empathetic hope for a marathon runner who is a few steps behind the runner is first place, or anxiety for the first place runner, and the second place runner catches up. We can experience these feelings even if the runners’ facial expressions reveal little more than muscular contortions associated with concentration and physical exertion. A situation can reveal a feeling. The core idea, as I will use the term, is that empathy is a kind of vicarious emotion: it’s feeling what one takes another person to be feeling. And the “taking” here can be a matter of automatic contagion or the result of a complicated exercise of the imagination. I don’t think there is anything anachronistic about this notion of empathy. I think it has a long tradition in moral philosophy, even though the term “empathy” is only 100 years old. The British moralists, including David Hume and Adam Smith, used “sympathy” in way that is similar to the way I want to use “empathy.” Here is Smith (1759: II.i): “Whatever is the passion which arises from any object in the person principally concerned, an analogous emotion springs up, at the thought of his situation, in the breast of every attentive spectator.” My question, in the pages that follow, is whether empathy so‐defined is necessary for morality. I should note again, in advance, that the empirical literature does not always distinguish between the constructs I have been discussing, but I do think that all the studies I discuss below can, by inference at least, shed some light on empathy as defined here. The suggestion that empathy is necessary for morality can be interpreted in at least three different ways. One might hold the view that empathy is necessary for making moral judgment. One might think empathy is necessary for moral development. And one might think empathy is necessary for motivating moral conduct. I think each of these conjectures is false. Empathy is not necessary for any of these things. We can have moral systems without empathy. Of course, it doesn’t follow directly that empathy should be eliminated from morality. One might think the modal question—Can there be morality without empathy?—and the related....|
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