Jean Decety and Jason M. Cowell
Perspect Psychol Sci. 2014 Sep; 9(4): 525–537.
The past decade has witnessed a flurry of empirical and theoretical research on morality and empathy, as well as increased interest and usage in the media and the public arena. At times, in both popular and academia, morality and empathy are used interchangeably, and quite often the latter is considered to play a foundational role for the former. In this article, we argue that, while there is a relationship between morality and empathy, it is not as straightforward as apparent at first glance. Moreover, it is critical to distinguish between the different facets of empathy (emotional sharing, empathic concern, and perspective taking), as each uniquely influences moral cognition and predicts differential outcomes in moral behavior. Empirical evidence and theories from evolutionary biology, developmental, behavioral, and affective and social neuroscience are comprehensively integrated in support of this argument. The wealth of findings illustrates a complex and equivocal relationship between morality and empathy. The key to understanding such relations is to be more precise on the concepts being used, and perhaps abandoning the muddy concept of empathy.
From the Conclusion:
To wrap up on a provocative note, it may be advantageous for the science of morality, in the future, to refrain from using the catch-all term of empathy, which applies to a myriad of processes and phenomena, and as a result yields confusion in both understanding and predictive ability. In both academic and applied domains such medicine, ethics, law and policy, empathy has become an enticing, but muddy notion, potentially leading to misinterpretation. If ancient Greek philosophy has taught us anything, it is that when a concept is attributed with so many meanings, it is at risk for losing function.
The article is here.