Varieties of Empathy: Moral Psychology and Animal Ethics

Varieties of Empathy: Moral Psychology and Animal Ethics

by Elisa Aaltola


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Empathy is a term used increasingly both in moral theory and animal ethics, with the suggestion that empathy enhances our moral ability and agency. Yet, its precise meaning is often left unexplored, together with the various obstacles and challenges met by an empathy-based ethic, such as those concerning the ways in which empathy is prone to bias and may also facilitate manipulation of others. These oversights render the contemporary discussion on empathy and animal ethics vulnerable to both conceptual confusion and moral simplicity. The book aims to tackle these problems by clarifying the different and even contradictory ways in which "empathy" can be defined, and by exploring the at times surprising implications the various definitions have from the viewpoint of moral agency. Its main question is: What types of empathy hinder moral ability, and what types enable us to become more morally capable in our dealings with the nonhuman world? During the contemporary era, when valuable forms of empathy are in decline, and the more hazardous, self-regarding and biased varieties of utilising empathy in the increase, this question is perhaps more important than ever.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786606129
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 02/09/2018
Pages: 254
Product dimensions: 6.01(w) x 8.99(h) x 0.74(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Elisa Aaltola is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Eastern Finland

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Good and Bad Empathy

The Need for Distinctions

Although the role of empathy has been largely ignored in Western moral theory, there have been recent exceptions, as some have viewed it as a key component of moral agency and even as the latter's sufficient and necessary foundation. Following suit, empathy has even been endorsed as the capacity which renders us into moral creatures (Slote 2007; Hoffman 2001; Aaltola 2014c). Empathy's merit lies in the way in which it enables mind reading and understanding of others and opens a view into the emotions, intentions, motivations and experiences of other beings. This has the potential to evoke moral concern in us, as suddenly it is not only our own internal worlds that we care for but also those of others – hence, via empathy we may begin to see value in the subjective contents of others and are stirred into action on their behalf. On these lines, it has been suggested that "experiences of empathy may reveal to us conditions in the world that we then desire to change", for it "enables us to see others' emotions as reason giving. ... Empathy is what allows us to see another's distress as a reason to act" (Hourdequin 2012, 410, 414). This capacity to note relevance in the internal worlds of others is the most pivotal feature of morality, for via it we become capable of grasping the moral dimensions of "harm" and are enticed towards other-directedness and heterogenic acceptance of difference. The claim is that individuals who cannot note the interests of others and see them as reason giving are not full moral agents, and since empathy forms the pathway to such noting, it emerges as the hallmark of moral ability (ibid.).

Therefore, empathy has potentially much to offer, for it may entwine with key features of moral agency and push towards perhaps the most astounding dimension of mental existence: the capacity to care for, and act on behalf of, others. Because of this, it holds the promise of combatting the type of moral desubjectification, inertia and failure depicted in the introduction. It can illuminate what it is like to be another, and as such can render those others into subjects worthy of moral attunement and vitality rather than apathy.

There is considerable empirical evidence to support this optimistic stance on empathy. First, studies demonstrate that empathy forms a significant element in the development of social concern and helping behaviours (Slote 2007; Soenens et al. 2007). Empathy can be a deeply pro-social ability and has been celebrated as a capacity that enables fluent social interaction. Indeed, it has been called the "defining feature of human interpersonal interaction" (Minio-Paluello et al. 2009, 55) due to the way in which it enables us to understand and relate to others. As an example of this social potency, high empathy is linked to moral outrage and restorative action, aimed at both locating moral errors and preventing them in the future and in so doing igniting both moral consideration for others, and active, prosocial behaviour (Davis 1996). Indeed, those with higher empathy levels show a significantly higher eagerness to help (Batson et al. 2002). Hence, the claim is that "empathy must be considered a prime candidate for being a universal motive base for prosocial moral behaviour when humans observe others in distress" (Hoffman 2001, 274). Simply put, empathy makes us care about the harms and distress suffered by others and pushes us to act on behalf of those others. Empathy also inhibits aggression, further ensuring socially and morally productive forms of action (Kaukiainen, Björkqvist and Lagerspetz 1999; Ali, Sousa Amorim and Chamorro-Premuzic 2009).

Empathy's connectedness to prosocial behaviour is evident when considering its role in evolution. As the renowned primatologist Frans de Waal suggests, empathy serves a clear evolutionary function as it helps both the empathizer and those around her: "Empathy allows one to quickly and automatically relate to the emotional states of others, which is essential for the regulation of social interactions, coordinated activity, and cooperation toward shared goals" (de Waal 2008, 282); "Being in sync is often a matter of life or death" (ibid., 288). The claim is nothing less than that empathy forms an inherent part of our constitution and survival, and this is again related to the way in which it facilitates prosocial behaviours, including co-operation and altruism: the manner in which empathy enables us to take others into account also facilitates our own flourishing. On these lines, empathy has even been placed as the solver of global problems and collective dangers faced by human beings, ranging from climate change to conflicts. The prosocial evaluation it enables could, according to this reading, ease our way towards a more peaceful, thriving future (Rifkin 2010).

Secondly, empathy has surfaced as an important factor from the viewpoint of norm constitution (Haidt 2003b; Blair and Blair 2009; Deigh 2011). It is particularly in the context of harm that empathy emerges as a vital tool for norm comprehension, for noting that another being is undergoing negative affect appears to gain a moral dimension only via an empathetic response (Hoffman 1990, 2001). Therefore, via empathy we may not only manifest concern and prosocial behaviour but also exhibit the ability to categorize and witness events as normatively charged, "good" or "bad". Here, particularly, matters related to harm are pertinent, as empathy assists in noting and morally responding to them. However, it can open us to also further moral notions, less obviously revolved around harm. For instance, it has been argued that empathy motivates one to perceive and also follow norms related to justice via offering the empathizer an emotive reward (it allows us to feel with the positive feelings of others; Deigh 2011). Hence, we may want justice to happen because we want to see others thrive.

Interestingly, Martin Hoffman claims that even John Rawls's famous "original position", a hypothetical scenario in which norms concerning justice are decided by taking into account all other individuals as if oneself could be any one of them, requires empathy – quite simply, we cannot identify with the other individuals without empathy. Here, empathy renders rationality into "hot cognition" with an "affective charge" that prevents relevant principles from remaining abstract (Hoffman 1990, 168). We not only theoretically, on a neutral level, ponder the rules of an ideal, just society, but we feel something towards and with the contents and consequences of our thoughts. In other words, empathy can act as a type of bridge between theory and practice, between abstraction and our lived experience, which was called for in the introduction. It enables us to perceive and constitute norms and to feel their moral relevance.

Therefore, research indicates that empathy is significant both for the development of prosocial behaviours (Thompson and Hoffman 1980; Cummins, Piek and Dyck 2007; Roberts and Strayer 2008) and the formation of moral judgements (Eisenberg-Berg and Mussen 1978; Kalliopuska 1983; Blair 1995; Blair and Blair 2009). Following suit, high empathy leads to not only higher levels of empathic, helping action but also internalization of moral values (Roe 1980; Dadds et al. 2009). With empathic ability, we begin to act on behalf of others and constitute norms and values with reference to their status and treatment – or at the very least, empathy holds the promise of having a pivotal role in such prosocial, promoral processes. (For a more critical review on moral development, sympathetic concern and empathy, see Spinrad and Eisenberg 2014.)

More than this, empathy may be necessary for one's sense of self. It has been suggested that empathy is crucial for the formation of self-identity as it facilitates introspection (Decety and Moriguchi 2007). The logic is this: via accessing the mental contents of others, we become more capable of reflecting on those of our own. This bridge between empathy and self-constitution was already noted by phenomenologists, as both Edmund Husserl (1989) and Edith Stein (1989) posited that we begin to know ourselves only after we grasp that others, too, have their viewpoints, their specific perspectives, onto a shared world. Here, empathizing with how others perceive us plays no small part, as we can learn to see ourselves from their viewpoint and thus gain new dimensions into our self-perception. Therefore, acknowledging and understanding the unique-mindedness of others enables us to comprehend more succinctly our own specificity and uniqueness, the content of what it is to be a particular "I", and it allows us to see ourselves from novel perspectives and angles, also capable of questioning and even shattering our own, inward patterns of self-perception, which again enhances the development of a mature self-identity. Those with limited or non-existent empathy would have a weak, confused or distorted sense of self (something manifested in personality disorders, such as narcissism, which are low on both self-understanding and empathy – a topic we shall return to later). Importantly, a mature sense of self is also the birthplace of mature moral agency – without grasping the "self" in the full sense of the term, "agency" will always remain indefinite and unruly simply because it remains unanchored to something reflective, self-perceptive and relatively fixed. This adds further support for the claim that it is, indeed, empathy which forms the core of moral agency, for not only does it enable prosocial action and moral concern, it also stabilizes such action and concern on the permanence of an aware, reflective "self".

As seen, empathy is the emotion perhaps most frequently brought forward in animal philosophy. It has been celebrated by feminist philosophy, as the feminist care tradition has incorporated its relevance into the non-human context (Gruen 2015), and it has been discussed both in analytic (Aaltola 2013a) and continental animal philosophy (Acampora 2006). Perhaps the first and most notable contemporary animal philosopher to discuss empathy was Mary Midgley (1983), according to whom empathy forms a focal aspect of our capacity to note moral value in the non-human world as well.

It is little wonder that empathy has been endorsed. If it sparks prosocial, promoral behaviour in the intrahuman setting, it most probably does so in relation to other animals: via empathy, we may be evoked to care for the well-being of moose and hawks to the extent that we want to assist them and extend various moral norms to concern them as well (see Furnham, McManus and Scott 2003; Sprinkle 2008; Kielland et al. 2010). Moreover, empathy may allow humans to question and evaluate their own moral character, their moral "selves", from the wider standpoint of how they relate to and treat non-human animals, which again will enhance the reflectiveness and maturity of their moral agency (indeed, perhaps we are also quite inward and immature in our self-understanding as long as we keep blocking off the possibility of acknowledging non-human-mindedness).

There are also further reasons. If we understand it to refer to "feeling with" the emotions or experiences of others, empathy functions as an antidote to scepticism, which forms one of the supporting pillars of anthropocentric attitudes. According to scepticism, we cannot "know" the minds of other animals, let alone comprehend their experiences, and due to this inability, neither can we give them serious moral regard (how can one offer moral concern for the mindedness of a pig if one cannot with any certainty know that mindedness?). Empathy provides a simple answer to this refusal to note mindedness and inherent value in the non-human realm, for here "knowing" the minds of others is not a matter of bullet-proof, theoretical, abstracted certainty but rather a matter of affectively engaging with others so that their inner lives begin to manifest. We do not infer the minds of others, we note them on account of our shared, emotive, experiential ability (an issue touched upon by philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Edith Stein and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and revisited later in this book). The difference between the two is stark. Empathy is affective and fluctuates with the emotions and experiences of others; scepticism is rational and disengages from the emotions and experiences it seeks to grasp. Thereby, empathy is epistemologically bound to its subject, capable of accessing and moving with the mindedness of others, and due to this it offers a promising, more reliable and lucid alternative to scepticism.

Indeed, contemporary literature on psychology is, to an increasing extent, suggesting that this sense of emotive boundedness is required for comprehending the subjectivity and moral worth of others – empathy is essential if other beings are to be noted as "subjects" rather than "objects". Hence, one of the most noted psychologists working on empathy, Simon Baron-Cohen, claims that "when you treat someone as an object, your empathy has been turned off" (Baron-Cohen 2011, 7) and suggests that those incapable of perceiving subjectivity in other beings suffer from "empathy corrosion" (ibid). Arguably, the sceptical attitude inherent in anthropocentrism is entwined precisely with empathy corrosion, a mode that perceives others primarily as objects rather than subjects, and thus the moral numbness towards and desubjectification of non-human animals evident in contemporary cultures may result from abandoning empathy. This would mean that the type of mechanomorphia towards non-human animals that depicts them as something akin to biological machineries (Crist 1999) which can be reduced to instrumentalized objects and commodities without moral scruples is rested on not only scepticism but also the lack of its much more warranted and epistemologically grounded alternative – empathy.

Therefore, there are good reasons to highlight empathy in the non-human context, for doing so may help to combat both scepticism and desubjectification of other animals (the very cornerstones of anthropocentrism). Yet perhaps empathy has been unduly romanticized. As will be suggested, it can lead to projections which ignore the difference and distinctiveness of others, and it can even be used as a method of manipulation and control (as it comes to the latter issue, empathy gains a wide variety of different bases, manifestations and meanings within different cultural settings, some of which are highly calculating and controlling – see Groark 2008; Robbins and Rumsey 2008; Hollan 2011; Hollan and Throop 2011; Throop 2011; von Poser 2011). Both of these matters apply also in empathy directed to other animals. In regard to the risk of projection, it has been stated that "the urge to identify with and so to anthropomorphize another's experience, like the urge to empathize with it, has been even more recently criticized as a form of narcissistic projection that erases boundaries of difference" (Weil 2012, 45). Here, the human gaze will only note those beings who can be made to resemble the imagery of humanity, and in so doing the rest of the animal world is either ignored or emptied out of particularity. As a consequence, the animal becomes a form void of content, a furry or feathery Disneyfied simulation born from mirroring the human self onto the non-human world. In regard to the risk of manipulation and coercion, this "species narcissism" is extended beyond projection towards concrete scenes of habitual violence, wherein empathy is used to gain information on other animals in order to utilize them more efficiently and fluently. Thereby, next to acting as a catalyst for noting non-human subjectivity and value, empathy also holds the treacherous potential for erasing them from our awareness.

We are left, then, at a junction between empathy as the pathway towards recognizing the morally significant individuality of pigs and pikes and empathy as a nullification of any such recognition. To add two more questions that may diminish the enthralling prospects of empathy: Is it possible to "know" non-human-mindedness without human bias? And is it possible to empathize with the ills and sufferings of all non-human creatures around the globe without succumbing to mental fatigue? That is, can one empathize with an animal in any other than a biased sense, and can one empathize with many animals, the sufferings of trillions, without becoming despondent and ultimately empathically incapable and numb?

These questions add to the melancholic prospect that despite its potential to mark others as morally valuable subjects and to thereby combat moral detachment and apathy, empathy may also increase objectification and moral indifference – in animal ethics as well. In order to examine this issue further, we need to know what we mean by "empathy" and what its different varieties are.


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Copyright © 2018 Elisa Aaltola.
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Table of Contents

Projective and simulative empathy Cognitive empathyAffective empathyEmbodied empathyReflective empathyThe limitations of empathy

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