International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)

Pleasures and Pains of Empathy

von Prof. Thomas Schramme

09.09.2021 · Empathy has a mixed reputation in moral philosophy. Some scholars think empathy is a pro-social phenomenon that connects people through an invisible bond. Others believe empathy leads to parochialism and unfairness. Such contradictory assessments of empathy are not surprising if we consider our own experiences with empathy. Occasionally, in the right circumstances and a fitting frame of mind, it will help us understanding even fairly unknown people and hence possibly play a role in acting according to their interest – which is at least one important aspect of acting morally. At other occasions we might feel overwhelmed by, say, the needy situation of another person, so that we shut down all empathic feelings and ignore any relevant moral demands.

It seems to me that specifically two points need to be made clear before we get an adequate picture of the vital role of empathy for moral agency. First, we need to get a better grip on the concept. Empathy is a relatively new notion, which was introduced as a technical term for a fairly restricted context at the beginning of the 20th century. Back then, it was concerned with the aesthetic experience of feeling into artistic objects. Since its introduction to modern languages, the concept of empathy has gained many different additional connotations. These should be kept separate, as far as possible. Second, we need to appreciate that empathy can be understood as a skill, as a performance, or as a result. These different modes of empathy lead to various possible assessments of empathy's significance for moral agency.

What is empathy anyway?

Empathy is a skill that enables us to gain access to the mind of others. This skill can be performed in a process we would describe as cognitive, when we take the point of view of another person. This is often described as stepping into the shoes of someone else. In the more technical parlance of philosophy, it is called perspective-taking. We can, for instance, imagine what another person – call her Heidi – might think or feel, if she has been badly insulted by her best friend. Our understanding itself does not necessarily come with any feeling, although the target, Heidi in our example, has certain feelings. Cognitive empathy also does not automatically lead to moral motivation, say, to alleviate the pain Heidi is going through. On the contrary, quite a few people who act immorally, such a con artists, are usually very good at "getting into the head" of others.

Empathy can also involve affective elements in the empathiser, especially feelings that seem to match the real or adequate feelings of another person. Empathy therefore allows what is often called vicarious feelings. For instance, Heidi might not even know about the insult of her best friend and still, we (who know about it) can feel sad in her stead. The sadness we are feeling supposedly matches the feeling Heidi would have had if she knew. At other occasions, where people overtly express feelings, we can be affected directly by them; we can feel with the other. Such a form of affective empathy is different from the cognitive form, because we do not simply gain knowledge about another person, but are feeling something as a consequence. This can lead to an affective bond with another person, a form of identification.

Empathy is obviously not the same as moral concern. Unfortunately, the concept of empathy is sometimes used when we should rather use the term sympathy. Indeed, the notion of empathy has taken over some of the connotations that the older term sympathy had. It does not add more clarity that moral philosophers, such as David Hume and Adam Smith, additionally used the term fellow feeling in connection with sympathy. So, we ended up in a conceptual muddle; throwing cognitive, affective and motivational aspects into the mix. Incidentally, the relevant concepts do not map easily onto the German terms Empathie and Sympathie, either.

Modes of empathy

Empathy, our human capacity to mirror the perspective of others, including their affective states, is not itself a moral capacity. Rather, it enables us to understand others and hence has mainly epistemic functions. Still, without such a skill it would seem hard to explain how we were even able to see others as beings with their own subjective standpoint. Indeed, seeing them as centres of subjectivity undermines an otherwise solipsistic belief about other minds. In a word, empathy enables us to see that other human beings are fellow beings. This is a form of epistemic interpretation of the notion of fellow-feeling – feeling that the other is a fellow – which I think is fully adequate for our empathic competence.

Still, the performance of empathy can go wrong in many ways, of course. Perhaps we do not understand the other, due to cognitive biases or psychological circumstances that hinder a fully adequate use of the skill. Psychologists have identified numerous hindrances to the performance of empathy, including empathy fatigue. This alone puts some doubts on the idea that empathy as such may reliably lead to morally justified action. And, yet again, it would seem difficult to explain how we were at all able to act morally – in a fallible fashion, of course – if we were altogether incapable of using our empathic skills.

Finally, to help us doing the morally right thing, empathy needs to lead to the right results. In short, we want to do what is the right thing for others, and this often requires detailed understanding of the other's mind and situation. For instance, I might believe that the morally right thing is to comfort Heidi, who was insulted by her friend. But, being a very proud and independently minded person, she might actually hate being comforted. If I knew that about Heidi, I might not act on my empathic concern for her. So, empathy can inform us morally but is not directly leading us to the morally right action.

To inform us in the best possible way, empathy needs to be successful. Yet, what that goal consists of, is far from clear. The standard of successful empathic performance is itself not determined by moral rules but by epistemic standards of understanding. It seems that empathy's best possible result consists in a fitting understanding of the other person; a form of empathic accuracy. Here lies an important and interesting research paradigm, which has already led to some findings in psychology, but only limited amount of work in philosophy, some from a phenomenological point of view.

Altogether, the role of empathy for moral agency is significant but restricted to its preconditions. Acting merely on empathic concern is hardly ever morally adequate. Yet, without our human empathic capacity, genuine moral behaviour seems inexplicable and unattainable.

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