Indiana University

Skip to:

  1. Search
  2. Breadcrumb Navigation
  3. Content
  4. Browse by Topic
  5. Services & Resources
  6. Additional Resources
  7. Multimedia News

Association of Practical and Professional Ethics mini-conference on empathy

Ethical theory, political culture and the behavioral sciences are currently witnessing an "empathy boom."

Statements or writings by President Barack Obama, psychologist Martin Hoffman, literary scholar Robert Katz, cognitive scientists Kent Kiehl and Simon Baron-Cohen, philosopher Michael Slote, ethologists Marc Bekoff and Frans de Waal, futurologist Jeremy Rifkin, business growth strategist Dev Patnaik, Microsoft's Eric Horvitz and educational specialist Mary Gordon all lionize empathy and its cultivation for the good of interpersonal and social life.

Richard Miller

Richard Miller

Print-Quality Photo

Generally this boom conceives of empathy as the ability to place oneself in another's shoes or as a form of perspective-sharing. More precisely, 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. Empathy enables us to imaginatively engage others on their own terms.

On March 4, 2012, four members of the Poynter Center's project on "Virtuous Empathy: Scientific and Humanistic Investigations," funded by the John Templeton Foundation, presented work-in-progress surrounding the question of empathy in relation to virtue at a mini-conference on empathy at the annual meeting of the Association of Practical and Professional Ethics:

  • Richard Miller, Poynter Center and Religious Studies, IU Bloomington
  • Fritz Breithaupt, Department of Germanic Studies, IU Bloomington
  • Kevin Houser, doctoral dissertation fellow for 2010-11, Department of Philosophy, IU Bloomington
  • Michelle Brown, postdoctoral fellow, Department of Sociology, for 2010-11; now at University of Tennessee

The core question that members of the project have been addressing is whether empathy is all that it is cracked up to be. The reigning picture of empathy in the academy and public culture today is that empathy is a widespread human capacity that enables people to overcome mutual lack of understanding. However, for biological or social reasons, some people suffer from an empathy deficit; their capacity to empathize is either under-developed or, if developed, overridden by stronger tendencies. Empathy deficits, it is believed, help to explain lack of moral sensitivity or a lack of pro-social behavior. For these reasons, empathy is perceived to be a desirable moral trait that should be cultivated in family and society.

Miller, Breithaupt, Houser and Brown presented arguments and findings that complicate this prevalent view of empathy. Miller set the stage for the panel by identifying several reasons why empathy is not intrinsically valuable as a moral trait -- think of empathizing with a spiteful or treacherous person, for example. He then argued for conceiving of empathy as a virtue on the view that it may be instrumentally valuable to the expression or formation of other virtues.

Drawing broadly on how Augustine distinguishes between forms of love as potentially virtuous and vicious, Miller argued that virtuous empathy requires the support of other virtues, namely respect for people, judgment and justice. Virtuous empathy, then, is a matter of judging the reasons that another poses to feel and think in attuned ways.

Breithaupt presented a picture of empathy that presupposes not that humans might have an empathy deficit, but that humans may well have a surfeit of empathy that requires regulation and restraint. He also argued that empathy informs how a third party evaluates a conflict between two other parties, enabling the third party to take sides and justify his or her judgment in a post-facto manner. Empathy on this description is less of a matter of responding to than rationalizing the adjudication of conflict.

Contrary to claims that sharing (perspectives and/or feelings) is the primary ethical function of empathy, Houser argued for an empathy that does not overcome alienation/difference but acknowledges it. Uniquely ethical empathy emerges on his account from a normative conflict between (i) the intensely private, perfectly partial imperative imposed upon the sufferer: to bear it and (ii) our shared criterion for just imperatives (that they be impartial). The result: a shared sense that subjection to, and separation by, suffering is something to be alleviated/undone.

A sociologist and criminologist, Brown in her project aims to interrogate social scientific approaches to the American penal system through the lens of empathy as part of her larger project, which she calls "edgework." She explores the edges of empathy in public life and in institutions of pain and exclusion.

Brown's research on empathy and the United States penal system revealed that introducing empathy into legal proceedings or penal administration is an entirely ambivalent matter. She showed that in sentencing proceedings, for example, empathy in no way guarantees equitable treatment of accused or convicted individuals.