The Philosophy of Empathy

By Slote, Michael | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Philosophy of Empathy


Slote, Michael, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


Everyone talks and writes about empathy nowadays, not just presidents who speak about "feeling your pain" or appointing empathic federal judges, but scientific writers, talk show hosts, journalists, and most of the rest of us, too. Scientists tell us about mirror neurons in the brain that might underlie empathic processes and about the various ways in which apes and other nonhuman animals are capable of empathy. And studies indicate that human males are less disposed toward empathy than human females because only the male brain is bathed in testosterone in utero and because the higher testosterone levels that males tend to register throughout their lives are associated with a greater aggressiveness that gets in the way of empathy.

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But these studies and this work and all the words from others typically don't make clear what the ethical and broader philosophical implications about empathy might be, and those are precisely the issues I want to address, however briefly, in this article.

First, however, let us be clear about what is meant by empathy. The term "empathy" was invented early in the 20th century. Before that the term "sympathy" was used to refer to what we nowadays refer to as sympathy, but also to refer to what we would now call empathy. So what is the difference? For most of us today, empathy differs from sympathy in the way that "I feel your pain" (empathy) differs from "I feel sorry about your being in pain" (sympathy).

But many current psychologists of moral development accept an "empathy-altruism hypothesis," according to which empathy powers and shapes our sympathy and, more generally, our altruism. Psychologists of empathy think that even young babies are capable of empathic reactions and that as one becomes cognitively more mature, a typical person's capacity for empathy will develop. For example, by the time one reaches adolescence, one will be capable of empathy not only with those one knows or sees around one, but also with disadvantaged people one only knows about through television, the Internet, films, books, or the newspaper. Moreover, the identification with others that empathy involves isn't a total merging or submerging with or into another person--empathic and caring individuals retain a sense of their own identity even when helping others.

How is all this relevant to ethics? Well, philosophical ethics has largely been dominated by ethical rationalism, the view that our moral capacities and tendencies are a function of our rationality, our powers of reason. But all the current talk about caring and empathy--and these notions didn't much figure in common talk in our society as recently as 30 years ago--has led some philosophers, myself among them, to think that being moral is more a matter of empathic concern for or caring about others than it is a question of being rational.

Those of us who think this way are called (moral) sentimentalists, and the earliest sentimentalists were the 18,h-century British philosophers David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, and Adam Smith (best known for his work on economics). But nowadays people called care ethicists have revived that tradition and claim it is superior to the ethical rationalism that has dominated philosophical thought since Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Morality and empathy dovetail

To reiterate, most care ethicists (like myself) think morality is more a matter of being empathic and caring for others than of being rational. They think that an immoral person is not necessarily irrational in his or her thinking and actions, but can be said to be heartless if he or she is malicious or indifferent toward other people. So care ethics sees being moral as a function of someone's emotional tendencies and capacities. And some care ethicists also believe that our moral thinking is based on empathy. In other words, we believe that one has to be empathic in order to be caring and that the combination of these qualities is what makes people into or makes them count as morally decent or even good people. …

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