Classical Theism, Philosophy, and Religion Forum

You are not logged in. Would you like to login or register?

7/16/2015 12:35 pm  #1

Empathy and Morality

I posted this in a Google+ community as a response to the claim that empathy is a sufficient ground and driver of morality. Some of this was influenced by Dr. Feser so it might sound familiar. I would appreciate your feedback.

Empathy is a poor ground for morals because it can encourage poor behavior intended to mitigate suffering. Let’s take a look at some definitions first. Google defines empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another; Merriam-Webster defines it as the feeling that you share another person’s experiences and emotions; and Psychology Today describes empathy as the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspecitive. 

Consider an addict. Were I to truly empathize with him (we’ll say our addict is male for the sake of brevity) then I would have to embrace his point of view that he needs his fix now and that he does not want to go through withdrawal. It is not empathetic to hold to the higher road because the higher road has no meaning. Even worse, it’s not empathetic. I’m not seeing things from his point of view because all he wants is to get high and avoid withdrawal. That’s all. 

Holding our addict friend to the higher path of getting and staying clean has more problems than just being empathetic. In a secular world, being clean has no intrinsic value, for as Dawkins says, there is no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference. Humans have no higher purpose in life, except  as Dawkins and Hitchens were wont to say, what they personally (subjectively?) find in it. So if we’re using empathy as the sole ground and driver of morality, considering that the universe is devoid of good and purpose, then all that matters to our addict friend is the fix. This is meaning that he assigns to his life and it would be height of arrogance to assume that our meaning is superior to his.


7/17/2015 6:40 pm  #2

Re: Empathy and Morality

If you are interested, the New or American Humanists, like Babbitt and More, were prolific in their criticism of sympathy and empathy as the ground of all morality.


7/18/2015 9:12 am  #3

Re: Empathy and Morality

Empathy would be a very poor ground of morality.

If you feel pain, and then I feel your pain, why is there any obligation for me to do anything about this? There is just the fact that we are both in pain. There is no reason for me to take any action. Only if we have a notion of teleology is there reason to think I ought to do something. If there is a way that human beings are supposed to be, and you are not conforming to that standard, and if I am supposed to act in certain ways as  result of my own natural purposes, only then is there a reason for me to take action.

Additionally, simply ending someone's pain may not be the best thing to do. If someone feels lonely because he has no friends, and I wanted to just end his pain, I might give him a drug that removes his feeling of loneliness. Now he is still in the same position as before. He has no friends and this is a problem, but he does not notice the problem anymore. Instead of solving his problem, I have simply given him a way of ignoring it.



8/04/2015 7:26 pm  #4

Re: Empathy and Morality

I once thought of the following arguments when discussing that matter:

1. If empathy is the *normative* reason to act morally, then people who lack empathy don't need to act morally. (e. g. psychopaths)
2. But people who lack empathy need to act morally. (e. g. is not morally permissible for a psycho to torture a baby)
3. So empathy is not the *normative* reason to act morally.

A complementary argument:
1- A person who have empathy feels the pain that the other person is feeling.
2 - (Since we should strive to have the least amount of pain possible, then) Everything that maximizes the amount of pain in the world is evil / should be avoided.
3 - But having empathy maximizes the amount of pain in the world. (from (1))
4 - Therefore, empathy is evil / should be avoided.

(I don't believe that conclusion, I just wanted to piss off certain persons).

Another one to elicit some reactions:

1. Either we have a sufficient reason to act morally or we don't have a sufficient reason to act morally.
2. If we have a sufficient reason to act morally, then empathy is superfluous (a sufficient reason to act morally would be enough in itself, after all).
3. If we don't have a sufficient reason to act morally (e. g. moral nihilism), then empathy is superfluous. (if there's no sufficient reason to act morally, then having the feeling of empathy is objectively not different from having any other feeling - there are just feeling against feelings with no superior criterion to adjudicate between them).
4. So either way empathy is superfluous.

Again, I know this arguments are open to various objections, but my goal was to make some people at least argue for their 'empathy'-grounded morality... Provoking reactions is a good starting point.


8/05/2015 3:19 am  #5

Re: Empathy and Morality

I've always liked Kant's stance that a moral action is only moral when it is done without any rationalizations, emotions, etc. So when you start to think oh should I accept this gift from a student, I've worked hard, but the rules forbid it, etc., your decision will not be a moral one according to Kant. So moral actions should be done only because they are moral, nothing more, not because of empathy or something else.

Last edited by Rivers23 (8/05/2015 3:19 am)


8/14/2015 2:42 pm  #6

Re: Empathy and Morality

Alexander wrote:

Perhaps I misunderstand, because I foresee an obvious query: what the hypothetical teacher seems to be doing is considering the morality of an action (in this case, accepting a gift from a student). If we are forbidden to consider whether the action is moral, how do we know we are doing the action because it is moral? After all, the act might be immoral. If we don't stop to consider, how would we know?

Firstly, that would come awfully close to relativism. Secondly, in objective morality, we know it's wrong to receive gifts for doing your job. Period. So that's the only moral action in this case. We know which actions are moral and which are not.


8/15/2015 1:15 am  #7

Re: Empathy and Morality

I wonder if war and the life of a good soldier isn't prima facia evidence that empathy *isn't* sufficient ground and driver of morality. Stop me if you think I'm idealizing in the pejorative sense, but war seems to me to operate precisely on the basis of the suppression of empathy on the part of the soldier, yet he still does his duty and shows proper respect and restraint on the basis of a very differently constituted moral psychology. I don't know if that's transparent as an example to everyone as it is to me, but the moral fighter of all sorts is not operating first and foremost on the basis of empathy.

I'm inclined to think the sexual dynamic works this way also- as a struggle between two very different kinds of psychology -and in most cases full empathy with the lover is the death of the erotic. But this would *not* entail that there is no moral behavior in erotic interaction: clearly there is.

Fighting to the death "the noonday demon" of Acedia.
My Books
It is precisely “values” that are the powerless and threadbare mask of the objectification of beings, an objectification that has become flat and devoid of background. No one dies for mere values.
~Martin Heidegger

Board footera


Powered by Boardhost. Create a Free Forum