Empathy and morality

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  1. 1.

    Human infants, for example, are capable of ‘emotional contagion’, a rudimentary form of empathy which Maibom considers in her introduction to the volume (p. 4). As Gruen and Andrews note in their contribution, this constitutes a kind of mimicry which doesn’t require advanced cognition (p. 195). By contrast, what’s often termed ‘cognitive empathy’ involves taking on the perspective of another in order to gain insight into their inner emotional life—this species of empathy does depend upon a more sophisticated psychology (pp. 195–196).

  2. 2.

    Batson uses empathetic concern to designate a range of emotions including ‘sympathy, compassion, tenderness, sadness, distress, concern and grief’ (p. 42). Following Maibom, empathetic concern seems best construed as sympathy, an empathetic emotion marked by its focus upon the welfare of another and a coarse-grained matching of emotion (for example, sadness when the other is negatively affected and happiness when the other is positively affected) (p. 6).

  3. 3.

    Batson offers a motivational definition of altruism, according to which it consists in a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing the welfare of another (p. 43).

  4. 4.

    Interestingly, McGeer resists approaching autism as a case of complete moral competence in the absence of cognitive empathy. Instead, she understands autistics’ ‘reverence or reason’ as playing a compensating role rather than as a foundation of full-fledged moral agency (2008a, p. 238).

  5. 5.

    I do not mean to suggest the implausible thesis that moral agency is constructed solely upon the capacity to experience fear and anxiety. As other contributors to the volume note, personal distress can in fact decrease helping behaviour (Batson; Spinrad and Eisenberg; Hoffman; Kaupinnen; Ugazio, Majjdandžić and Lamm). Rather, the fact that a deficiency in these emotions impairs moral agency within the psychopathic population and that the presence of these emotions plays a compensating role (re: McGeer) in the autistic population gestures towards their potential moral significance.


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I am very grateful to Victoria McGeer and Edward Elliott for insightful comments on a previous draft of this essay.

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Correspondence to Jessica Isserow.

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Isserow, J. Empathy and morality. Biol Philos 30, 597–608 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-015-9489-8

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