The Moral Significance of Empathy

Dissertation, The University of Oxford (2019)
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In this thesis, I argue that empathy is morally significant because it plays an important role in informing our moral deliberations. Empathy should be thought of not as an alternative to rational deliberation about how we are to act, but rather as an important input into such deliberation. I focus on exploring what we learn when we empathize with the suffering of another person. Standard epistemic defences of empathy say only that such empathy will give us knowledge of which affective states the suffering person is feeling. I add to those defences by arguing that empathy with a suffering person also gives us additional types of knowledge about the affective states that this person is feeling. Most significantly, I argue that empathizing with a suffering person gives us knowledge of the strength of one of our reasons to help that person. I call this the Normative Epistemic Claim. In chapter 1, I contextualize my approach within the recent philosophical discussion of empathy. In the following chapter, I explore the relationship between empathy and altruism, and argue that there is an unanswered question about how empathy gives rise to altruistic motivation. I suggest that we should answer this question by considering the idea that empathy gives us phenomenal knowledge about the affective states of other people. I defend this idea in chapter 3, where I also relate it to the debate about phenomenal knowledge that has been stimulated by Frank Jackson’s example of Mary, the scientist who comes to see colour for the first time. In chapter 4, I begin to show the importance of phenomenal knowledge to moral deliberation. I argue that by giving us such knowledge, empathy with a suffering person also gives us knowledge of how intrinsically bad that person’s suffering is for them. In chapter 5, I extend this approach to defend the Normative Epistemic Claim. Finally, in chapter 6, I summarize the role of empathy in moral deliberation and broaden my discussion to include consideration of the significance that empathy has in inhibiting harming and in directing us to promote the joy of other people.



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William Jefferson
Oxford University (DPhil)

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