Empathy: A Moral Hazard


  • “Empathy” is a recent term founded upon deeply flawed axioms of the human sciences.
  • During the twentieth century, its meaning evolved and flattened, but its present use traces to a completely different source and implies a visceral sense of knowledge of another person’s experience that imposes a moral duty.
  • This current view is contradictory to neurology and epistemology, and its moral implications are impossible to reconcile with the principle of “ought-implies-can.”
  • The term has replaced “sympathy,” which has both a long history and a close connection with ethical theory as a purely emotional sense of compassion.
  • Empathy seems to impose a moral duty based upon a phantom identification with another person, but it fails as a moral imperative because it is dependent upon one’s degree of attention and capacity for sympathy, and these are obviously variable.
  • Empathy is partially founded upon Romanticized notions of pantheism and intuition.
  • Although empathy is a central tenet of postmodernism, it is contradicted by identity theory that argues identity to be a pure product of individual environements.
  • Despite these impediments, most persons today will defend empathy as desirable, but that does nothing to salvage it as a moral foundation.
  • It is too little because it suggests moral worth to be imposed by our attention and too much because equity would demand that we extend our empathy to all persons in similar circumstance, and that would leave little time or energy to live our own lives.
  • The proper moral question equity provides is what our duty must be rather than what our attention happens to notice.
  • Empathy activates our aspirations while suppressing our involvement.
  • Nothing about empathy defines the moral duty which follows the putative identification with another’s misfortune.
  • Rather than rely on accidents of attention and disposition, we ought to prefer a moral stance built upon more solid axioms of commitment than empathy.

For a term that has so permeated the culture and seems as indubitable as it is desirable, “empathy still holds a few surprises. We think of it as a perfection of compassion, an antidote to prejudice, and a means of universalizing our social obligation. We might think its roots to be buried deeply in moral tradition. It is so central to most persons’ conception of goodness that morality itself in their view could not survive its absence. But here is the catch: none of it is true. “Empathy” is a relative neologism whose intended meaning was never clarified by its inventor. As an epistemological concept, it is an impossibility. As a term related to moral goodness, it is a Romanticized and escapist fantasy that fails tests of consistency and equity. Our moral universe would be both clearer and kinder if we abandoned empathy altogether.

It might be surprising that a term that seems so central to moral thinking only entered the lexicon in 1909. Now it is likely that ethics could use some new thinking since its long history has produced as much discord as benefit, so the truth that philosophy got along without the term for so long is not in itself disqualifying. It is perhaps a bit more disturbing that “empathy” was coined in the fervid search for replacements for modernist warrants for truth and goodness claims around the turn of the twentieth century (see Postmodernism Is Its Discontents”) that included the invention of the human science of psychology (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). The era saturated the general culture with Freudian theory even as the practice of psychology largely abandoned it and the train of competing paradigms that followed. One short-lived permutation was Structuralism, which sought to reduce human motivation to the primary constituents of experience in experimental settings as observed by clinicians. It combined the worst excesses of scientism and pseudo-science, like so many other efforts of its time. Its most famous champion was Edward Titchener, who invented the term “empathy” to describe one elemental mental state, along with 44,000 other “primary” mental constructs that then combine to form human experience.

Fast forward to perhaps the most loved use of the term, one that occurred a half century later, an expression of the concept that resonates so deeply for many persons that it substitutes for any mere clinical definition. “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Harper Lee put these words into the mouth of the beloved Atticus Finch and so swung the moral compass of generations of Americans. It is this meaning of the term that guides so many today.

But it is worthwhile to gauge the change in meaning that “empathy” went through, for it was yet another of those seemingly technical terms that entered the culture around the turn of the twentieth century as part of the frantic and fractious efforts of postmodernists between World War I and the maturation of their theories in the 1970’s, an effort that introduced so many human science terms from psychology, sociology, economics, and the educational and religious theories that derived from them. Collectively, these new “scientific terms” were launched into common parlance with all the confidence but none of the actual justifications of the empirical enterprise. Terms like social Darwinism, praxeology, relativism, sublimation, markets moderation, constructivism, transference, and, yes, empathy all emerged from that frenzy of pseudo-scientific discourse that followed the failures of modernist warrants for truth and goodness (see “Postmodernism’s Unsettling Disagreements”). In diffusing into the literate popular culture, “empathy” developed a more diffuse meaning as well.

As coined by Titchener, the term was meant purely as an empirical, as opposed to a moral, condition. As defined in practice, the act of empathy was a detectable physical state, an effect of a physical cause, much as one might regard perspiration as a response to heat. It was framed as a primary component of mental reflection, one that could then be synthesized with others into a myriad of secondary states of consciousness. His first, and hopelessly naïve, iteration proclaimed that empathy was a “fact” that resulted from a “visual image” of a given character or situation, which then produced a “kinesthetic activation in the corresponding muscles” of the mind. Nothing could be clear from such a description, other than Titchener’s complete lack of medical knowledge. This conception of the term runs smack into impossible obstacles, which probably explained why Titchener repeatedly redefined the term in his own usage. He retreated from the neurological nonsense of his Structuralist definition to the safer and fuzzier explanations of established psychological “science,” describing empathy as a stimulus that engages “the full sympathy” of the experimenter with his experimental subject. Less physiological this definition might be, but note the remnant analogy to the emerging wonders of the hard sciences: the telephone rings, the radio transmits, the light glows at the flipping of the switch. These initial mechanical and transitive properties of the term, not to mention their normative neutralism, would eventually fade away, and in his final definition, Titchener simply defined empathy as sympathy alone, in which place it has uncomfortably resided ever since. This obscurantism doubly changed its meaning. First, the mechanism of what Titchener called “a discrete mental state” shifted from transmission to reaction, from autonomic to voluntary. But much more importantly, the term evolved from a “scientific fact” of neurology to a moral pursuit.

Certainly, this seems to be Harper Lee’s characterization of the empathetic act, as I suspect it is most persons’ today. So if we are willing to accept this new meaning of this new term, we are faced with a question: what’s the difference? Why invent a new word that means nothing different from a very old one? For sympathy has a much longer history, entering English through the middle French as early as the sixteenth century and dating in its usage to the Greeks. What does empathy provide that sympathy lacks? If the inventor of the term in question couldn’t distinguish the two, why should we?

The answer involves the creative inventiveness of these pioneers of postmodernism, who imagined a brave new world of human perfection built upon what they took to be the new human sciences of the early twentieth century that were themselves based on the triumphs of a mechanistic model of the universe guiding the natural sciences. The notion of an effortless transmission of one person’s experience to another powered the new term, but as it percolated through the culture, empathy came to mean a kind of admirable sympathy on steroids. No one seemed to notice the problem such a shift to such a meaning produces.

Sympathy had already been given not only a definition but also a role to play in moral behavior. Sort of one, anyway. Its traditional meaning invoked an imaginative act of substitution resulting in an emotional response of one person to another’s situation. Simply put, it means compassion (literally “common feeling”). The definitive connection with morality was well established by David Hume in the late eighteenth century, who regarded feelings and sentiments as decisive in morality. “Reason is, and ought to be, only a slave of the passions,” Hume argued. Any notions of benevolence or justice we might associate with moral duty, he said, arose from sentiments of sympathy and the good feelings we derive from such emotions. What sympathy always requires is a clear separation of them and us. Sympathy is our response to their plight or vice versa. We could no more feel their feelings or know their reactions than we could walk in their skin. In Hume’s view, the “moral” response compassion produces is merely an expression of approbation or disgust that speaks to our own emotional state based on what must be a very superficial and imperfect understanding of the other person’s situation. Such an emotivist response may have no real shared feeling because it must always be an emotional and imaginative creation centered in our consciousness rather the reality facing another. There’s a very good and well-reasoned explanation for that limitation.

Modernism had long established that all knowledge derives from the intersection of reason and experience (see “Modernism’s Midwives). This, obviously, includes knowledge of anyone else’s situation. As carefully considered by early knowledge theorists like Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant, our awareness is a consequence of our reflections on our perceptions. A moment’s thought should reveal that experience is the brick of our awareness and reasoning the mortar that binds experience into some structure of knowledge. But our experiences differ, so much so that two witnesses to the same event are likely to report some difference in their experience of it. Whether that difference is a product of sensory processing or reasoning on it is a matter of serious disagreement for epistemology, but for the issue at hand, it hardly signifies, for either would doom any possibility of what Titchener called “motor empathy.” So if moral judgment requires a prior accurate understanding of the true situation that frames moral choice, the failure of empathetic communication must call into question the consistency of any sympathetic response. This is why Hume regarded morality to be rooted in pragmatic and cultural values rather than any objective conception of goodness, why he insisted that one could derive no ought from even the most certain is.

But we should also consider that perhaps Hume had it wrong, that the route to certainty does not proceed through the right-angled thinking of modernist rationality. Perhaps it could find some warrant in Romanticism, which regards intuition, emotion, and insight as the means to certain knowledge. For that is what the Atticus Finch notion of empathy requires: a near supernatural ability to know the situation as another person experiences it and process it using whatever that person chooses as a mode of comprehension. We all know how variable our own responses to experience are, how we might greet the same situation with sunny optimism one day and the gloomiest despair the next, how our emotions seem captive to forces beyond their deserts. By what mystical means might empathy match that psychic frequency, by what mode might it not only assess the situation facing the other but also calibrate the response just as that other might, despite the despairing confession of each party that she could not actually predict her own response to such a situation with any reliability? Add to this challenge the quirky and murky operations of each person’s prior experience that so colors present and future ones (see “What is the Virtual Circle?”). Surely, only God could achieve such a communion with another’s soul! Of course, that was the Romantics’ conceit, for their theory of knowledge relied on a pantheist connection among all souls communicating through divine intuition by virtue of powerful emotion. The irony of such a theosophical perspective inspiring a twentieth century psychologist is less unique than might be supposed, for a legion of Romantic ideas were repurposed in the desperate search for new warrants that marked the early twentieth century, cloaked in the theorizing of social science and pitched to the mass markets that received them with something like religious fervor. By 1909, the year the word “empathy” first fell from Titchener’s lips, the notion of a benevolent and invisible web of interconnected souls seemed as extinct as any of Darwin’s lost species, as simplistic as Newton’s notion of instantaneous gravitational attraction. A decade later, the atrocities of the machine gun, submarine, and mustard gas shattered forever such quaint and childish notion, except among those who embraced the old Romantic fantasies and others who continued to revere the newer fantasies of the human sciences. In their naivete, believers of both stripes were abetted by the confusions of the new age, its warrants for truth and goodness in doubt and its Victorian moral framework repudiated (see “The Victorian Rift). And so the popular culture embraced the notion of empathy, perhaps because it was needed to lessen the blows of the twentieth century, the age that gave us another neologism: genocide. But even such a loose notion so carelessly thrown into cultures as empathy faced additional troubles as the twentieth century limped to its end. Its assumptions clashed with some of the foundational principles of postmodernism. One of the era’s pillars is identity theory, derived initially from John Locke’s mistaken notion of tabula rasa. The fundamental assumption is that identity is formed a posteriori by environment, and therefore that persons are completely molded by their experiences. Karl Marx used this notion to postulate a bourgeois mentality, one formed entirely by economic circumstances. All subsequent notions of group identity derive from Locke’s outlook filtered through Marx’s lens. We are in this view formed by race, class, gender, nationality, or some other environmental input. If true, this identity surely must be immune to the possibility of empathy, for its essence is its hermeticism. Whatever influences form us also distance us from others differently molded. Now if we take the original meaning of “empathy,” we might imagine some mental shaft shot from the bow of one consciousness to another, but postmodernism forbids this intuitive knowledge as it does the consciousness of states of being other than those that created our identity, so by their lights the imaginative act that creates the compassion they desire must be inventive indeed, finding no source in either experience or reason. But one does not have to be a postmodernist to find fault with the concept. As a moral compass, empathy would always lack its magnetic pole.

For even if we overlook the dubious origins of the term, its nebulous meaning, the epistemological impossibility of its operation, and its contradiction of other underlying theories of popular cultures, a basic question remains: what can be so wrong about compassion for others? Is it really so much less than the imaginary empathy that Edward Titchener and Atticus Finch invented in its stead?

In its popular form, the word has distinct moral connotations, rather than clinical ones. So let us ignore the pseudo-scientific etymology and the impossibility of actually walking a mile in another’s shoes. Let us ignore its negatives and simply equate it with compassion. Isn’t that a good thing? What could be wrong with caring for others? Isn’t it the essence of the Golden Rule at work?

I would never argue that compassion is not a very good thing or that it is not one sign of a working morality. It’s just not enough to make one. We can’t think of empathy in even its most simplistic form as a pillar of morality because a true moral system requires a consistency of judgment and a commitment to equity that an imaginative emotional act simply cannot provide. It is both too little and too much. Too little because it suggests that moral worth is imposed by the power of our sympathetic response, requiring our attention to weight a situation with moral heft. And I don’t have to remind you that our attention is a very fickle thing.  It is also too much because equity would require that we feel such a sympathetic response appropriate not to our level of attention but to the level of need that merits it, whether we notice it or not. And that would require a level of attentiveness that would leave us little time to live out our lives (see “Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights”).

Let us first consider consistency. We see perennial appeals to our empathy from animal and children’s rights advocates. Accompanied by mournful music and painful images of emaciated pets or pitiable children, these ads ask their comfortable and well-fed targets to put themselves in the place of these victims. Now the dictates of experience indicate that this cannot be done as previously noted. But even our attempt to do so bumps up against another issue. This appeal to empathy is dependent on our attention. The empathetic act requires an active imagination to produce the emotional and creative associations that simulate identification with the other. In short, I choose to show empathy. I don’t have to. This freedom to choose is, to my mind, one of the most pernicious aspects of regarding empathy as a constituent or foundation of morality, for it seeks an emotional and imaginative effort that I can easily avoid because it relies on my commitment. I may be distracted or absorbed in my own pursuits at the moment. Or I may simply be emotionally uncharitable by character, in which case I can close the gates to my compassion. We tend to regard empathy as an emotional response of our own choosing. But a true moral duty would phrase the question differently: to whom do we owe this act of sympathetic imagination? It is the difference between desire and duty, and it is all the difference imaginable in gauging moral systems.

The difficulty lies not only in the impossibility of successfully imagining the consciousness of another but also in the moral duty implied in that imagining, or to complete that thought, in the degree to which morality requires one to universalize that act of sympathetic identification and to respond to it. For any thought of rationing compassion is ultimately a moral problem, one that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity never quite succeed in facing. Our natural temptation, of course, is always toward tribalism, which allows us to close the gates of compassion to those with whom we don’t identify (see “Why Invent a Social Contract?). The parable of the Good Samaritan raises just this question, for Jesus’ audience would regard the Samaritan as “the other,” providing them the chance to avoid compassion without moral stain. The Christian responsibility in theory forces opens those gates, for, as we know, Christians are to regard all as their neighbors, with the attendant exponential increase in their duty to others. But this level of universal sympathetic identification, though a moral imperative that is also vivified by the life story of Jesus Christ, is also an emotional impossibility, and so St. Augustine’s response is “to pay special regards to those who, by the accident of time, place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.” As we have seen, it is all too easy to close the gates and hire the security guard. As we can control what we notice, we easily choose to respond to only some rather than all, and yet still applaud our own empathy. It is this inconsistent and voluntary element of empathy that disqualifies it as a moral measure. In practice, we don’t think of ourselves as rejecting compassion for those we ignore, but instead we congratulate ourselves for offering compassion to those we notice. Recall the rather smug response of the starfish saver in the modern parable. Do you think after he “saves this one,” he chooses to save another? How long should he spend on the beach? The intent of the story is to have us applaud his empathy and recognize the difference he makes to the one starfish he saves and by extension to ourselves, to applaud the act of sympathetic imagination that actuates such selective compassion (see “The Moral Bullseye”). To be clear, it is good practice to work our sympathies in this way, for it reminds us of our humanity. I applaud a spontaneous act of generosity to strangers, not only to prime the pump of moral duty but also to challenge our tribalism and complacency. But these instinctive and casual gestures of outreach obscure the bigger question. Is this kind of limited response a moral one? Can we congratulate ourselves for our empathy when its employment is so obviously haphazard, accidental, and incomplete? What damage does it do to any notion of moral equity and what impediment must it be to the development of an actual moral system capable of guiding moral duty? Imagine the emotional overload had Titchenor’s automatic and mechanistic “kinesthetic activation” of a mental connection proved true in actual practice on that beach!

Ultimately, as the term is used today, empathy offers less a moral solution than a conundrum. In the worthy moral tradition of “ought implies can,” we should rethink the positive connotations of the term. If empathy carries no moral heft, if the act to which it refers involves voluntary and selective compassion, then the moral issue becomes this: to whom are we morally obligated to assist whether we succeed or fail in imagining their circumstance and what is the extent of that obligation?

A natural response won’t do, and actually subverts the issue. I want to respond to that question by saying, “Why, whoever needs it and however much!” But that is a completely empty response since I cannot know who needs it without seeking them out, and they are everywhere. If my moral duty is seen as universal love or compassion in response to need, and if I know I cannot meet that duty, and if my natural response is to ration my sympathy by rationing the level of attention that directs it, then I am forced to reject the supposition that I am obligated to feel moral duty to everyone who needs it. In practice, I replace that warm and fuzzy thought with the truth of my actual practice: I feel duty whenever I happen to feel like feeling duty. By that expedient I increase my own preferential freedom, practice a feel-good sympathy entirely dependent on my own level of attention and desire, and avoid any question of actual moral responsibility to strangers.

And that introduces another wrinkle. A prerequisite to answering the question above involves my defining “need,” since the sympathy we are discussing is entirely dependent on my own experiences and imaginative capability. The problem with the Golden Rule is that it universalizes our own desires without confirming that they are good for us, never mind good for another. The kind of natural and emotional pouring out of imaginative sympathy that we are describing is purely subjectivist/emotivist in moral terms and is as dependent on the degree of privilege one has experienced as it is on “the accident of time, place, or circumstance” of those whom we happen to meet. So is our moral duty to feel compassion for every soul who fits our definition of need? If it is, isn’t the most common response to ration the circumstances in which we are made aware of that need so as to continue living our own lives? And if we are to regard that “fellow feeling” of sympathy to move us to act, to what degree are we morally obligated to sacrifice the satisfaction of our own needs to satisfy our own conception of others’ needs?

This is not an Ebenezer Scrooge question, but rather one that takes seriously the moral obligations we owe to others and the rules of equity that must govern those actions (see “The Riddle of Equality”). It is abundantly clear that we cannot do everything. Also that we must do something. The moral principle of “ought implies can” must be our guide in these matters. If you close your eyes and think for even a moment about this world, about seven billion lives playing out in a kaleidoscope from misery to excess, I promise you will find more than enough to engage your compassion. But what then? Do you figuratively pick your dying starfish at random to expend your energies on — look that one I almost stepped on! — comforting yourself that what you do matters to this one while gingerly stepping over the many others as you hurry away from the beach? This seems to be the secular response with its attendant productions of self-satisfaction and fixed moral squint. Or do you face the situation from a full-on religious perspective and live your modest life in perpetual guilt and dread of damnation for neglecting the cries of “the least of these”?

Doesn’t it strike you as wrong either way? Surely the first sign of confused thinking is a vague discomfort over where our thoughts lead us. Moral duty cannot rest on feeling some vague emotion we term “empathy” that is actually compassion prompted by accidents of attention, valuation, and our native gifts of emotional tenderness applied to the vagaries of circumstance! But it must be equally obvious that moral responsibility cannot survive the slow strangulation of emotion imposed by adherence to a fictitious Ayn Rand notion of merit, the stupidly defensive effort to think that trouble must always be the fault of the troubled and that we “higher” creatures merit all of our good fortune, that compassion should be rationed by the instincts of tribalism to blood relations! That level of heated self-delusion is hardly cooled by periodic dips into compassion’s pool.

We are all placed in this emotional vise, and if we have the slightest desire to live a truly moral life we seek a resolution that offers us a true moral choice. Our search can neither begin nor end in emotion, for while compassion may be a spur to and a consequence of morality, it can never be its measure. That requires something both more rational (see “The Tyranny of Rationality) to provide equity, and more comprehensive to make sense of our duty to others and to ourselves (see “Functional Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights”).


One thought on “Empathy: A Moral Hazard

  1. excellent article. need to reread a few times. one thought- Frans De Waal.
    Google him please

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