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Poynter Center research project explores relationship between empathy and ethics

Politicians lament the "empathy gap" in modern society. Popular authors cast empathy as the key to a wiser and more just society. You can almost imagine the Beatles singing, "All you need is empathy."

But a two-year Indiana University project takes a more complex and nuanced view of empathy, the ability to understand and experience another person's feelings and state of mind. Funded with a $199,617 grant from the University of Chicago, the project brings together scholars from the humanities, life sciences, social sciences and information sciences to examine how empathy is linked to moral norms.

Richard Miller

Richard Miller

"Everyone tends to think of empathy as a virtue, but that is a romanticized view," said Poynter Center director Richard B. Miller, the principal investigator for the project. "However, empathy can have a dark side. You can empathize in order to manipulate, exploit or cause pain to others.

"The core of this project is to get beyond a 'folk' concept of empathy and expose the distinctions between the experience of empathic feelings and empathy that leads to pro-social behavior."

The project, "Virtuous Empathy: Scientific and Humanistic Perspectives," co-sponsored by the Poynter Center and the IU Institute for Advanced Study, is part of a "New Science of the Virtues" initiative supported by the John Templeton Foundation. It is one of 19 projects chosen for the $3 million initiative from among 700 responses to the funding proposal.

Taking place from fall 2010 to spring 2012, the project includes focused seminars with outside speakers and IU scholars, informal brownbag meetings for participants, and sharing of research and scholarly work that will lead to published articles. It will culminate with a campus-wide symposium in late 2011.

Indiana University support comes from the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the IU Institute for Advanced Study.

The project follows a year-long, multidisciplinary faculty seminar on empathy, sponsored by the Poynter Center and the Institute for Advanced Study, that brought together a multi-disciplinary IU group to start working on and thinking about the concept of empathy in 2009-10.

Miller said the combination of disciplines involved in the "virtuous empathy" project makes for creative and dynamic scholarship, with participants forced to listen carefully, learn new terms and concepts, and examine the research topic from different perspectives.

"Much of the exciting work being done in the university really occurs at these boundary crossings," he said. "This transgressive spirit, we think, can be a catalyst for fresh thinking."

The project includes nine IU faculty members from diverse programs who are studying various aspects of empathy:

Kate Abramson, assistant professor of philosophy, is working on the history of sentimentalism prior to the 18th century. Notions of empathy dating back to Cicero are essential to this story.

Colin Allen, professor of the history and philosophy of science, will examine how cognitive, neural and behavioral sciences investigate empathy, especially in nonhuman animals and robots.

Keith Barton, professor of education, will develop instructional procedures for balancing historical empathy and ethical judgment in secondary schools and higher education.

Bennett I. Bertenthal, James H. Rudy professor of psychological and brain sciences, focuses on action understanding and the human mirror neuron system.

John Bodnar, professor of history and director of the Institute for Advanced Study, will look at empathy, numbness and the American response to humanitarian crises since 1945.

Fritz Breithaupt, associate professor of Germanic studies, will aim to find empirical evidence from the sciences for a model of empathy that looks at why an observer will take sides in a conflict.

Miller, professor of religious studies and director of the Poynter Center, will compare empathy with two virtues: Augustinian caritas and Kierkegaardian agape.

Lisa Sideris, associate professor of religious studies, will explore the role of empathy in developing ethics toward marine creatures and environments.

Aaron Stalnaker, associate professor of religious studies, will compare conceptions of empathy, sympathy and compassion in Confucian and Western accounts.

Kent Kiehl

Kent Kiehl, University of New Mexico

Also part of the team are postdoctoral fellow Michelle Brown, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio University, and dissertation fellow Kevin Houser, an IU doctoral student in philosophy.

A series of outside speakers adds more perspectives. On Oct. 27, Kent Kiehl of the University of New Mexico gave a public lecture at the Indiana Memorial Union about his work in psychopathy in prisoners. Kiehl, known for his work in administering fMRI scans to prisoners, described the manipulative behavior and lack of sympathy exhibited by extreme psychopaths and discussed links between psychopathy and patterns of brain connectivity.

Also scheduled to speak as part of the project are Jodi Halpern of the University of California, Berkeley, a scholar of empathy in the health professions and the author of From Detached Concern to Empathy: Humanizing Medical Practice; and Nancy Sherman, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University who has consulted for the U.S. armed forces on issues of ethics, resilience and posttraumatic stress.

While the research project includes multiple perspectives and disciplines, it has a focused set of goals. The team aims to establish the terms according to which empathy can be conceived as a virtue, explore whether virtuous empathy is psychologically realistic, examine conceptual roots or parallels to the idea of empathy in East Asian and Western thought, explore its potential for public and social responsibility, and create a model for future scholarship that bridges the sciences and humanities.

All in all, it reflects the Poynter Center's mission of drawing on the full resources of Indiana University to initiate interdisciplinary research and teaching about ethical issues in American public life.

"This project is another example in which the Poynter Center has reached out across campus to create new intellectual collaborations and address important ethical and political issues," Miller said. "It's very much in keeping with our mission."