Feeling for others: Empathy and sympathy as sources of moral motivation

Heidi L. Maibom
University of Cincinnati
According to the Humean theory of motivation, we only have a reason to act if we have both a belief and a pro-attitude. When it comes to moral reasons, it matters a great deal what that pro-attitude is; pure self-interest cannot combine with a belief to form a moral reason. A long tradition regards empathy and sympathy as moral motivators, and recent psychological evidence supports this view. I examine what I take to be the most plausible version of this claim: empathy or sympathy is necessary for someone to be motivated not to harm others. I argue that one can be motivated not to harm others even if one cannot feel either empathy or sympathy. The evidence comes from the clinical population of people with frontal lobe damage. In addition, if empathy is a moral motivator, we have a conflict with moral autonomy. Either empathy morally motivates, but agents are not autonomous, or agents are autonomous and need not be motivated by empathy. Sympathy suffers from two shortcomings as a moral motivator: it is unlikely that we must sympathize with ourselves in order to feel obligated not to harm ourselves, and there appears to be many other considerations that motivate us not to harm others: fear of harming ourselves, reluctance to add to the cycle of violence, and so on. These considerations are more self-centered than empathy or sympathy, but, perhaps for that very reason, they do not conflict with moral autonomy.
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