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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Empathy is a moral force

Jamil Zaki
FORTHCOMING in Gray, K. & Graham, J. (Eds.), The Atlas of Moral Psychology

Here is an excerpt:

More recently, however, a growing countercurrent has questioned the utility of empathy in driving moral action. This argument builds on the broader idea that emotions provide powerful but noisy inputs to people’s moral calculus (Haidt, 2001). Affective reactions often tempt people to make judgments that are logically and morally indefensible. Such emotional static famously includes moral dumbfounding, under which people’s experience of disgust causes them to judge others’ actions as wrong when they have no rational basis for doing so (Cushman, Young, & Hauser, 2006). Emotion drives other irrational moral judgments, such as people’s tendency to privilege physical force (a “hot” factor) over more important dimensions such as harm when judging the moral status of an action (Greene, 2014; Greene et al., 2009). Even incidental, morally irrelevant feelings alter moral judgment, further damaging the credibility of emotion in guiding a sense of right and wrong. (Wheatley & Haidt, 2005).

In sum, although emotions play a powerful role in moral judgment, they need not play a useful role. Instead, capricious emotion-driven intuitions often attract people towards internally inconsistent and wrong-headed judgments. From a utilitarian perspective aimed at maximizing well being, these biases render emotion a fundamentally mistaken moral engine (cf. Greene, 2014).

Does this criticism apply to empathy? In many ways, it does. Like other affective states, empathy arises in response to evocative experiences, often in noisy ways that hamper objectivity. For instance, people experience more empathy, and thus moral obligation to help, in response to the visible suffering of others, as in the case of Baby Jessica described above. This empathy leads people to donate huge sums of money to help individuals whose stories they read about or see on television, while ignoring widespread misery that they could more efficaciously relieve (Genevsky, Västfjäll,
Slovic, & Knutson, 2013; Slovic, 2007; Small & Loewenstein, 2003). Empathy also collapses reliably when sufferers and would-be empathizers differ along dimensions of race, politics, age, or even meaningless de novo group assignments (Cikara, Bruneau, & Saxe, 2011; Zaki & Cikara, in press).

The chapter is here.