By Richard Miller
Principal Investigator: Virtuous Empathy: Scientific and Humanistic Investigations
Inquiry into matters of empathy and virtue must proceed today on polemical note. What should prompt disquiet is the fact that recent discussions of empathy romanticize the concept and thus contribute to confusion about both empathy and aspects of moral theory. Call this romanticized picture the “folk concept” of empathy. According to the folk concept, humans and perhaps non-human primates have natural tendencies that enable pro-social behavior. Empathy thereby serves an explanatory function: it provides a causal story for why humans and non-human primates carry out one or another form of altruism. One key piece of evidence in this account is that humans and some non-human primates appear to have natural tendencies to exhibit care for another in situations of distress. Another key piece of evidence is that children at a very young age exhibit a keen desire to track and mimic the affective expressions of their caretakers. These data conspire to suggest that humans have strong dispositions to place themselves in another’s shoes and exercise appropriate care as a result. Scholars who champion this folk notion often encourage the cultivation of empathy as a recipe for promoting other-regarding actions as a way of addressing society’s ills. And the cultural dissemination of this account is not trivial. President Obama seemed to presuppose this folk concept when he identified empathy as a trait he would like to see in a Supreme Court Justice nominee.But this folk concept is deficient for three reasons. First, it fails to indicate what makes empathy obligatory. The concept thus lacks an account that indicates why, on moral grounds, we should want to be empathic, or what it is about empathy that would lead us to fault an agent whose actions lack empathic qualities. The folk concept of empathy makes it a matter of talent or fortune.
This first deficiency implies a second: the problem of determining what passes for a morally praiseworthy trait, and why. In order to address that question, it is necessary to have a free-standing idea of what constitutes morally praiseworthy or morally blameworthy behavior. That is to say, such an account should provide reasons that identify what it is about empathic behavior that renders it morally admirable. Simply identifying a disposition to imagine another’s point of view, for example, does not articulate what it is about such imaginings that we’d want to admire or cultivate. It fails to indicate what would make an empathic disposition virtuous. Sadists are empathic insofar as their pleasure derives from 1grasping the pain they impose on their victims, but that fact hardly renders their actions morally commendable. Indeed, psychopaths seem especially adept at adopting another’s point of view as a means of manipulating their victims. Folk concepts of empathy routinely ignore such unsavory examples.
A third problem arises from the fact that the concept of empathy often does two kinds of work. It is sometimes deployed to provide answers to theory of mind questions: how is it that we imagine or take up the views of another? At other times it is deployed to provide answers to pro-social questions: how is it that we act altruistically? But these two questions need to be kept distinct.
All of these matters invite inquiry into empathy that seeks greater conceptual precision than is currently the case. Identifying differences between empathy and virtue will help us understand how, and on what terms, an ethical empathy, or an account of empathy as a virtue, is possible.
1 See C. Daniel Baston, “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related by not Distinct Phenomena,” in The Neuroscience of Empathy, ed. Jean Decety and William Ickes (Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 2009), 3-15.
In discussions of empathy in primate groups I find what I think is a disturbing tendency to cheapen the word "social" and its derivatives. Socialization is the phenomenon by which human beings communicate their ideas and wants to other human beings, and by means of which the others can learn from the transaction. I don't find any evidence of that going on in other primate groups. Chimps are not utilizing socialization to learn about each other or to form common expectations or goals ar anything else of that sort.
They are cooperating with each other and caring for each other, but those are entirely self-interested behaviors. No one seemingly doubts that, because they are understood to be behaviors that nature has selected on. In addition, the kindly little chimps aren't learning anything new. Here again, they are understood to be implementing helpful behaviors, but I don't see the learning. There is a world of difference between sharing bananas and sharing the recipe for Bananas Foster. In fact, it is problematical whether we should term any of this "empathy."
The results of a recent study of children, on the one hand, and adult primates carried out at the Max Planck Institute showed that adult apes and two year old children were equally adept at dealing with the environment (the intellectual aspects of, not the physical aspects of dealing, of course). When the tasks turned to dealing with others of the same species (human, Chimpanzee, or Orangutan), the children performed as expected but the apes were completely clueless. The apes showed no flicker of a concept of a "society."
For us men and women, morality is the working out of our capacity for true empathy and our willingness to endure temporary hardship for the sake of abstract justice. Alone among the animals, we have the capacity to do this. I don't think it is a very survivable trait, and offer the example of Thomas a Beckett as evidence.
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