Academic journal article The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy

Altruism, Empathy, and Sex Offender Treatment

Academic journal article The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy

Altruism, Empathy, and Sex Offender Treatment

Article excerpt

Being able to emotionally respond to other people and to share their experiences is a core psychological skill and an essential ingredient of healthy intimate relationships and strong communities. It enables us to enter into individuals' internal worlds and draw from the knowledge that this imaginative process yields an explanation for their actions and predict what they are likely to do next. The capacity to respond in this way has been called empathy, sympathy, emotional knowledge, mind reading, and mentalizing, to name just a few of the concepts evident in the research and popular literature (Decenty, 2012). The ability to be empathic helps people to act in altruistic ways and to acquire social and moral norms. Its absence is thought to be associated with dysfunctional and destructive social behavior. If you are unable or unwilling to empathize with another person's distress it becomes much more difficult to act in ways that further their interests rather than simply attending to your own. The personal consequences of a failure to empathize with others include social isolation, confusion, and possibly the infliction of formal or informal sanctions by the community.

Given the apparent foundational role of empathy in the establishment and maintenance of social relationships and community cooperation, it is not surprising that developers of programs for sex offenders have included empathy interventions in their list of essential treatment components (e.g., Laws & Ward, 2011; Marshall, W. L., Marshall, L. E., Serran, & Fernandez, 2006; Pithers, 1999). Sexual offenses clearly involve the overriding of another person's best interests by an offender, and hence display, at least on the face of it, empathy deficits. However, despite the face validity of including victim empathy interventions in the treatment of sex offenders there is surprisingly little evidence that sex offenders have enduring empathy deficits, or, more worryingly, that empathy interventions result in reduced reoffending. According to Mann and Barnett (2013) the problems reside in a weak evidence base and a lack of a coherent model of change.

It seems to us that there are several contestable assumptions underpinning current theoretical and empirical research into the nature and function of victim empathy deficits in sex offenders, and subsequent treatment programs based on this research. These assumptions are: (a) empathy deficits represent specific psychological problems that are reliably present (even if specific to a particular victim or context) in individuals who commit sex offenses, (b) empathy interventions increase the ability of offenders to respond empathically to potential victims, and (c) offenders who successfully resist the desire to reoffend do so, at least partially, because they have become more empathic. In essence, these assumptions boil down to the claim that empathy related competencies (i.e., perspective taking, emotional responsiveness, according others respect, being able to manage one's own emotional distress etc. - see Barnett & Mann, 2012) are necessary and/or sufficient for desistance from sexual offending. The trouble is, we lack the evidence to support these assumptions as well as an account of where empathy figures in the rehabilitation process.

In this paper we examine Philip Kitcher's (2010, 2011) concept of psychological altruism and altruism failure, and consider its conceptual relationship to empathy and morality. We then apply Kitcher's multidimensional concept of altruism to the field of sex offender rehabilitation and argue that it can provide a useful ethical resource through which to approach the various tasks of practice. Importantly, the concept of altruism and its five dimensions shifts the focus away from the concept of empathy, which is plagued with definitional vagueness and is somewhat normatively detached (see below), to the theoretically richer and pragmatically more versatile concepts of psychological and behavioral altruism. …

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