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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Against Empathy Bias: The Moral Value of Equitable Empathy

Fowler, Z., Law, K. F., & Gaesser, B.
Psychological Science
Volume: 32 issue: 5, page(s): 766-779


Empathy has long been considered central in living a moral life. However, mounting evidence has shown that empathy is often biased towards (i.e., felt more strongly for) close and similar others, igniting a debate over whether empathy is inherently morally flawed and should be abandoned in efforts to strive towards greater equity. This debate has focused on whether empathy limits the scope of our morality, with little consideration of whether it may be our moral beliefs limiting our empathy. Across two studies conducted on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (N= 604), we investigate moral judgments of biased and equitable feelings of empathy. We observed a moral preference for empathy towards socially close over distant others. However, feeling equal empathy for all is seen as the most morally and socially valuable. These findings provide new theoretical insight into the relationship between empathy and morality with implications for navigating towards a more egalitarian future.

General Discussion

The present studies investigated moral judgments of socially biased and equitable feelings of empathy in hypothetical vignettes. The results showed that moral judgments of empathy are biased towards preferring more empathy for a socially close over socially distant individual. Despite this bias in moral judgments, however, people consistently judged feeling equal empathy as the most morally right. These findings generalized from judgments of others’ empathy for targets matched on objective social distance to judgments of one’s own empathy for targets that were personally-tailored and matched on subjective social distance across subjects.  Further, participants most desired to affiliate with someone who felt equal empathy. We also found that participants’ desire to affiliate with the actor in the vignette mirrored their moral judgments of empathy.