Posted on October 5, 2011
Empathy has long been regarded as one of the key foundational concepts in morality. In recent years, certain scientists studying the biological roots of morality and the inner workings of the brain have expanded the role of empathy. They argue that empathy forms the basis for much of our moral decisions and actions.
But perhaps we ought to skeptical of claims that empathy is or should be the most important factor in morality. At least that’s what David Brooks of the New York Times argues in his latest column:
There’s a lot of truth to all this. We do have mirror neurons in our heads. People who are empathetic are more sensitive to the perspectives and sufferings of others. They are more likely to make compassionate moral judgments.
The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.
Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.
What does Brooks propose as a compliment to empathy? Read more here.
Interestingly enough, the article I posted yesterday made an even bolder claim: not that empathy is insufficient for morality, but that it might actually work against us in trying to make morally “correct” decisions.
As I said, I’ll likely have an essay on this issue soon.