Friday, November 15, 2013

Empathy and Moral Decision-Making

In the discussion thread of a recent post ( the one that picked apart the argument that allowing same-sex marriage is a slippery slope to bestiality), JD asked the following question: "Is the good and the right defined as 'whatever provokes a strong empathetic response'?"

My response in that discussion thread was a simple no.

In fact, the answer is obviously no. When my daughter hits her head and starts crying, I have a strong empathetic response. Does it follow that my daughter's hitting her head is good and right? Obviously not. So, it is quite obvious that the good and the right is not defined as whatever provokes a strong empathetic response.

But, of course, JD was guilty in this case of asking a very poorly formed question. What he should have asked is something more along the following lines: "Are the behaviors that I am inspired to perform based on a strong empathetic response always morally good and right?" Or maybe it should have been this: "Is 'morally good or right' to be defined simply as 'whatever I am immediately inspired to do when I have a strong empathetic response'?"

Again, the answer would be no. But the question would gesture towards a more interesting, open-ended question: "What is the relationship between moral empathy and moral decision-making?"

I think there is a very strong relationship between empathy and moral decision-making. In general, those with a poorly developed sense of empathy, or those in the habit of failing to attend to what their empathic feelings are telling them, routinely make worse moral decisions than those who cultivate their sense of empathy and pay close attention to what it has to say.

Empathy is about experiencing things through the perspective of another person. Such a capacity can be more or less finely-honed. That is, you can be bad at it even when you try. You imagine yourself into another person's shoes, but your imagining is pretty consistently dead wrong. As such, you can have a very strong empathetic response that is, at the same time, deeply out of tune with the experiences and feelings and needs of the person you are responding to.

So, even if one did want to draw a close theoretic connection between morality and empathy, the identification JD gestures towards--equating moral action with the action one's empathetic responses urge--would not do. Accuracy of empathetic response has to factor in to any empathy-based theory of morality.

And here's another important point: I might have a very strong and very accurate empathetic response to one person's situation, and be motivated by that response to do something that I would balk at doing were I to empathize with certain other people who are affected by the act. In addition to being more or less accurate, empathy can be more or less expansive in its scope. I can empathize with only white slave owners and have no empathy at all for their slaves, and thereby find myself forcefully defending slavery based on a strong and accurate empathetic connection to the former alone.

So, if you were going to develop a moral theory rooted in empathy, you'd want to understand morality not in terms of what a given person's empathetic feelings happen to urge them to do. You'd want to imagine someone in an ideal condition with respect to empathy--someone whose empathetic capacities are both  finely honed in terms of accuracy and widely expansive in terms of scope.

But even here we run into problems, since there is at least some reason to suppose that I ought to be more empatheticaly responsive to my children than I am to distant peoples, even if we concede that I should strive to have empathy for distant peoples as well. As soon as you begin to consider seriously the idea that some empathetic responses ought to play a larger role in moral decision-making than others, you have to begin to ask yourself on what basis this prioritization should be made. And while I can imagine a really creative moral philosopher coming up with a way for empathy to serve as that basis, the more natural approach is to suppose that there is some standard other than empathy which needs to be admitted into our moral deliberations.

Thus, while I think that empathy plays a huge role in morality, I do not think the best moral theory is one which defines morality as what empathy urges, or even what an ideally empathetic agent would feel an urge to do. I think empathy is a virtue that plays a profoundly important role in the decision-making of anyone who hopes to be truly moral. But I think there are other moral virtues that aren't reducible to empathy. A sense of fairness is going to interact with the urgings of empathy in interesting and important ways. Likewise for a sense of loyalty to those with whom one has established deep personal ties and commitments.

And when the urgings of empathy conflict with those of loyalty or fairness, how do you decide what to do? There are no easy answers here. Hence, even when I read JD's question charitably and try to get at what he meant to ask, the answer remains no.

But that said, empathy is important to moral decision-making in all sorts of ways.

Let me count them.

First, without empathy we make decisions based wholly on how things look from our own perspective. Empathy allows us to discern how things look from the perspectives of other people. The more widely we empathize, the more multifaceted our picture of things becomes. The truth about our world is best arrived at when we see things through multiple perspectives. And any kind of decision-making is benefited from a deeper insight into the truth.

Second, empathy gives us a better sense of how actions will affect others at the level of their feelings and their needs. And while I don't think morality can be reduced to making people feel good, there is no question that how actions affect people at the level of emotions and needs-fulfillment is crucial information for sound moral decision-making.

Third, I think morality is fundamentally connected with love. It's about loving our neighbors as ourselves.

As ourselves. One thing about my love for myself is this: I experience my emotions, my desires, my needs. They influence me because I feel them. Empathy takes me out of my head in such a way that I can relate to others in something like the same way that I relate to myself: Their needs and emotions come to have (at the ideal) the same kind of immediacy, the same kind of pull, that mine have for me. While empathy may not be all there is to loving my neighbor as myself, it is a huge piece of it.

Until I can experience the world through my neighbor's perspective, I cannot love my neighbor as I love myself. Until their perspective has a pull on my decision-making--the kind of pull that strong empathetic responses produce--I cannot love them as I love myself. Part of loving someone is experiencing their feelings and needs as something that matters for its own sake, as a reason to act--albeit not a decisive one, but a reason nonetheless, to be weighed against other reasons.

Until I care about the way that a decision will affect my neighbor in something like the way I care about the way it affects me, my decision-making is not shaped by love for my neighbor. And empathy is the chief pathway, if not the only pathway, to such care. Hence, if (as Christians certainly should) you think that moral decision-making must be loving, you can't engage in moral decision-making unless you empathize.


  1. Hi, Eric- Sounds like you have the makings of an outstanding humanist/atheist! This post is a firmly based in biological and subjective criteria. And that was always the argument for gay marriage/rights as well.

  2. Lack of empathy is also a feature of sociopathy. It may not be sufficient in itself for determining morality, but it must be a crucial component of moral decision-making.

  3. here's a good resource on empathy, Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

  4. Also Eric, perhaps you be interested in doing an online panel about empathy and the Progressive Christian Perspective. Contact me if your interested.
    and conference on 'How Might We Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion?'

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. It is interesting that I can empathize with the character of Ronnie McGorvey in Little Children (I haven't see the movie but I've read the book)--and yet, despite having strong empathy for his situation, I do not for a moment find myself thinking that there's nothing deeply problematic with his sexuality.

      Part of the reason for that is that I also have a robust empathy for those who are impacted by his acting on his sexual impulses--an impact of such a harmful variety that I do not hesitate to call them victims, just as he is a victim of community persecution. I come to appreciate the severity of both in part through my capacity for empathy.

      But another reason I see his sexuality as problematic is precisely because I empathize with HIM...and I see the damage that his sexuality is doing to him *apart* from the extreme response from his community. He isn't damaged merely by that persecution, but by the impulses that motivate the persecution. Those impulses are a profound impediment to his capacity to form the kind of meaningful, reciprocal intimate relationships that add so much to a human life, in which both partners are enriched and uplifted. And I see the persecution as wrong, in part, because it makes it harder for him to address those damaging impulses within himself in any way that isn't destructive (of himself and others).

      The lessons of empathizing with my gay and lesbian neighbors--especially when I practice empathizing accurately and broadly-- are different from this in all kinds of ways, which is one reason (not the only reason) why my moral assessment of homosexuality is *completely* different from my moral assessment of pedophilia.

      Let me add that, back in the 90's, I was involved with prison work (the Alternatives to Violence Project) that put me in contact with several pedophiles. In intense weekend workshop experiences, I had considerable opportunity to empathize with them. At no point did this empathizing have any impact on my view that their pedophilic dispositions were anything but profoundly damaging and distorted manifestations of their sexuality. In fact, the empathizing strengthened this view. Here were people who were being literally destroyed from within by their sexuality--and the harm was spilling out willy-nilly onto others, doing crushing harm to the most vulnerable in society.

      Empathizing with my gay and lesbian neighbors, by contrast, completely overturned my culturally-inculcated belief that there was something inherently wrong with their homosexuality. The difference lies in *what I learned* through sustained empathetic attention to the diverse community of gay and lesbian friends I came to have.

      The point is this: Anyone who has practiced empathy in the sort of careful way I sketch out above has learned that this practice does NOT lead to blanket embrace of every impulse and desire that the object of empathy happens to have. On the contrary, it appears to function as a means of moral discernment, one that intensifies some moral judgments of wrongness and overturns others. Whether it is a sufficient means is another matter--but the fear that leads many Christians I know to resist the urgings of empathy seems to be rooted in the wrongheaded idea that empathy washes away all moral distinctions and negative moral assessments. If you look at the way empathizing actually works, this is a mistake.

  6. Hi JD

    What if we look at empathy not as a arbiter or right and wrong, but rather as a mechanism by which behaviour is shaped, a behaviour which moral codes in turn can exploit?

    That is, empathy might not tell us what is moral, but might nudge our behaviour, given our understanding of right and wrong. Hence, the parent discovering their son is gay might find it impossible to maintain a point of view that would harm their child. The moral principle is 'do no unnecessary harm to my child' and empathy allows the parent to see that their prejudices are indeed causing their child harm.

    So empathy makes some moral positions harder to maintain than others, as we become aware of the harm our stances are causing. In this way, it perhaps places some pragmatic constraints on the types of morality rules we develop, and a large part of this is surely biological. As highly socialised creatures, evolution seems to have placed a premium upon the sorts of behaviours and responses that support social cohesion (reciprocity, cheat detection, loyalty etc) and as cultured creatures we have in turn exploited these tendencies in the construction of our moral codes.



    1. Some good thoughts here. I would say that in your example, empathy functions *somewhat* as an "arbiter of right and wrong," in the following way: The parent, prior to learning that their son is gay, ascribed to two distinct moral principles: "Homosexuality is categorically wrong" and "Doing unnecessary harm to one's child is wrong." Parental empathy revealed to the parent the fact that ascribing to the former conflicted with acting on the latter--leading them not only to give up the former in their own case but (as my experience with PFFLAG parents testifies) to become active in trying to change views about the ethics of homosexuality more broadly, especially in the case of parents of children who are or might be gay.