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Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Moral Importance of Reflective Empathy

Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu
J. Neuroethics (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-017-9350-7


This is a reply to Jesse Prinz and Paul Bloom’s skepticism about the moral importance of empathy. It concedes that empathy is spontaneously biased to individuals who are spatio-temporally close, as well as discriminatory in other ways, and incapable of accommodating large numbers of individuals. But it is argued that we could partly correct these shortcomings of empathy by a guidance of reason because empathy for others consists in imagining what they feel, and, importantly, such acts of imagination can be voluntary – and, thus, under the influence of reflection – as well as automatic. Since empathizing with others motivates concern for their welfare, a reflectively justified empathy will lead to a likewise justified altruistic concern. In addition, we argue that such concern supports another central moral attitude, namely a sense of justice or fairness.

From the Conclusion

All in all, the picture that emerges is this. We have beliefs about how other individuals feel and how we can help them to feel better. There is both a set of properties such that: (1) if we believe individuals have any of these properties, this facilitates spontaneous empathy with these individuals, i.e. disposes us to imagine spontaneously how they feel, and (2) a set of properties such that if we believe that individuals have any of them, this hinders spontaneous empathy with them. In the former case, we will be spontaneously concerned about the well-being of these individuals; in the latter case, it will take voluntary reflection to empathize and be concerned about the individuals in question. We are also in possession of a sense of justice or fairness which not only animates us to benefit those whom justice requires to be benefited, but also to harm those whom justice requires be harmed.

The article can be accessed here.