Professor, Religious Studies
Department of Religious Studies
Richard B. Miller is Director of the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions and Professor
of Religious Studies. His areas of research include religion and public life, political and social ethics, theory and method
in religion, and the history of theological ethics. Miller is the author of Interpretations of Conflict: Ethics, Pacifism, and the
Just-War Tradition (University of Chicago, 1991); Casuistry and Modern Ethics: A Poetics of Practical Reasoning (University of
Chicago, 1996); Children, Ethics, and Modern Medicine (Indiana UP, 2003), and Terror, Religion, and Liberal Social Criticism
(Columbia UP forthcoming), along with essays on war, civic virtue, religious ethics and cultural studies, and the ethics of
memory, among other topics. As Director of the Poynter Center, he has sponsored several initiatives in ethics and public life,
including an annual interdisciplinary faculty seminar, a working group on “Science and Democratic Public Life,” a campus
forum on “Race and the Academy,” and grants on medical philanthropy and the ethics of IT. In 1996-97, he was a fellow at
the Program for Ethics and the Professions at Harvard. With Eric Meslin of the IU Center for Bioethics, he co-edits the IU
Press series, Bioethics and the Humanities.
Assistant Professor, Philosophy
Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science and Cognitive Science Program
Keith C. Barton
Professor, Curriculum and Instruction, School of Education
Bennett I. Bertenthal
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and James H. Rudy Professor
Chancellor’s Professor, Director
Institute for Advanced Study, History
Associate Professor, Germanic Studies
Associate Professor, Religious Studies
Associate Professor, Religious Studies and East Asian Languages and Cultures
Virtuous Empathy: Scientific and Humanistic Investigations
This proposal is to examine empathy as a virtue in an interdisciplinary, collaborative project that coordinates research in
the life sciences, information sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Empathy denotes the ability to “place oneself in
another’s shoes” cognitively, emotively, and self-reflexively. It enables us to move from a perspective in which we project our
own thoughts and feelings onto someone to a psychological state in which our emotions are conditioned by our awareness
of another’s feelings and frame of mind. In a prototypical instance of empathy, we feel as we take the other to feel, given
our perception of his or her circumstances, and we are mindful of how our feelings have been so transformed. Empathy’s
importance for mental health, moral development, adjudication of conflicts, and self-other relationships cuts across a wide
range of cultural, intellectual, and political practices. It enables us to overcome isolation and imaginatively engage others
on their own terms. Moreover, knowing that others can or should be empathic allows us to assume that they can be so
disposed toward oneself. Empathy’s potential for other-regarding and self-regarding dispositions and expectations are vast.
The team from Indiana University will examine empathy from a variety of methodological angles, involving IU faculty from
Psychological and Brain Sciences, Philosophy, History, Germanic Studies, Cognitive Science, Religious Studies, East Asian
Languages and Cultures, and the School of Education. The IU team plans to examine whether and on what terms empathy
qualifies as a virtue, understood as a habitual disposition of good judgment, feeling, and action, an excellence of character
that has personal and civic dimensions.
“Virtuous Empathy: Scientific and Humanistic Investigations” brought together a multidisciplinary team at Indiana University to coordinate research on virtue and empathy in the life sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Empathy refers to a psychological state in which our thoughts and emotions are conditioned by our perceptions of another’s feelings and frame of mind. In prototypical instances of empathy, we feel as we take the other to feel, given our perception of his or her circumstances, and we are mindful of how our feelings have been so transformed. The IU team’s research question was: On what terms, if any, can empathy qualify as a virtue, understood as a habitual disposition of good judgment, feeling, and action, an excellence of character that has personal and civic dimensions? The IU team examined this question in theory and in relation to several practical questions in law, history, education, and society.
Empathy is widely perceived as a psychological capacity that enables persons to achieve mutual understanding and carry out pro-social behavior. The IU team’s findings considerably complicate prevailing notions of empathy as a desirable moral trait. At the heart of IU’s findings is the idea that conceiving of virtuous empathy requires us to resist the temptation to view empathy in isolation from a wider suite of reasons, moral norms, and feelings.
Generally IU’s findings either expand or constrain claims about empathy’s potential as a morally desirable trait. The more expansive lines of research examined empathy’s moral implications in human and non-human interactions, in non-human animal interactions, or in non-Western intellectual contexts. The more constraining lines of research were of several sorts. One line of research arrived at the notion that virtuous empathy requires reasons for assessing the epistemic and emotive states of another with whom one may empathize. Another line of research argued for an empathy which does not overcome alienation/difference but acknowledges it. Other lines of research examined cultural obstacles to the cultivation of empathy, or psychological states in which empathy might be trumped by other emotions, for better or worse. Animating the IU team’s collaboration was the insight that ethical analysis of empathy must grapple with the fact that it can be used in morally undesirable ways.
The IU team consisted of Kate Abramson (Philosophy); Colin Allen (Cognitive Science; History and Philosophy of Science); Keith Barton (Education); Bennett Bertenthal (Psychology and Brain Sciences); John Bodnar (History; Director, IU Institute for Advanced Study); Fritz Breithaupt (Germanic Studies); Michelle Brown (Post-doc; Sociology); Kevin Houser (Doctoral Dissertation Fellow, Philosophy); Richard Miller (PI, Religious Studies; Director, Poynter Center); Lisa Sideris (Religious Studies); Aaron Stalnaker (Religious Studies; East Asian Languages and Cultures). The team developed and disseminated findings through scholarly presentations and publications, seminar meetings and brown bag lunches, a tutorial session on the emotions in neuroscience, an international symposium, and an extensive on-line resource page for members of the project and interested parties.
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