Wednesday, April 06, 2005


The past few (regular) posts were used to introduce my view of systems of morality. The two on relativism argued that all systems must be given credance as there is no universal standard by which to evaluate them. The last one was to explain how these systems could interact through moral arguments. Now it is time to look at my moral system, the one which I would recommend, by considering its fundamental basis: Empathy.

What is empathy?

As a base description, empathy is the ability to see things from another point of view, and act with consideration of the needs and desires of others rather than just one's own.

Why empathy?

On its face, this question is ridiculous. If, as argued before, the basis of one's system cannot further be justified without going down to further base facts, how can I attempt to explain my reliance on empathy? Well, my reasoning is this: Although I cannot absolutely show why empathy is my basis, I can give partial explanations. None of these is enough as a block to support empathy. However, together they might at least give a way of defending empathy from other systems seeking to claim dominance. If one wishes to see these as 'mini-blocks' holding up empathy, they are free to do so!

The first answer to "Why empathy?" is that it is a key feature of most moral theories. Most religions include in their ethical codes something along the lines of what is, for example, expressed in the Christian tradition as "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you". Of course this key command predates Christianity and indeed, all modern religions. It manifested in pagan systems. In fact, my problems with religion generally manifest when their ethical codes deviate from this command. For example, for many Christians it is subservient to the obligation to obey God. As far as non-religious ethical systems go, Utilitarianism and Kant's writings also give examples of sytems focussing on harm caused. The best way to assess harm seems to be through empathy.

However, I would argue that the case for empathy goes much deeper. A second reason to use it as a basis seems to me more pertinent. Many of us like to believe that we are different from animals in some way, separate and above them. Personally, I do not have much time for such beliefs, as I see them used to excuse ourselves of fearing behaving like savages. We are part of the animal kingdom, but I can well understand the desire to separate ourselves from the rawest part of nature, survival of the fittest. I see in empathy the only instinct we have to look beyond the purely selfish and consider the well-being of others. As such, it is our way of moving beyond the unforgiving part of nature. This is better for most of us, as many would not survive in our natural state. Even without resorting to empathy for the plight of others, empathy makes sense from a purely selfish (enlightened self-interest) point of view.

On a connected note, empathy is what allows society to function. Without it all would attempt to meet their own needs and people could not draw together to provide the safety net for the less fortunate. I do not argue that society is always a positive thing, but for the majority whose lives it has enriched should see this as a point in favour of empathy.

An important stage in the development of children is them learning to see things from the point of view of others. As they learn and agree to compromise, we consider them as maturing. Most things done in childhood, now considered unconscionable, were in large part due to a lack of empathy. Through the idea of 'maturing' we show how it is instinctive that empathy is a laudable quality.

How far should empathy go?

This is a complicated question. Most would agree that it is good to consider the opinions of others, but many would say that they must come second to moral rules. For example, this would be used as an argument for banning euthanasia, as the moral rule to not kill would override the wishes of the person to be killed. Since the argument here is that empathy must be the basis for moral rules, these limits need to be clarified. If morality allows too much acceptance of other people's desires, it would be unable to condemn them for anything.

The answer here is not too difficult, however. If empathy is the foundation, then empathy should only go as far as actions which do not themselves violate empathy. The reason that empathy would not generally be used to argue against punishing people for crimes is that to do so would aid crime itself, which is (at least in the conception to be argued later) a violation of empathy. Therefore, as long as the punishment does not outweigh the violation so as to itself violate empathy, it is compatible with this ethical system.

This can of course get rather complicated. Let us take an example where a policeman catches and arrests a burglar in the act. However, the burglar's accomplice sees this and attacks the policeman. How should this be assessed? The burglar's act was a clear violation of empathy for the property owner. Thus empathy is not necessary for his actions. The policeman clearly violated his wishes by arresting him, but this is not a violation of empathy as he, like us, need not have empathy for the burglar's activities. Furthermore, the policeman's actions further empathy overall, by encouraging empathy for people's property rights. We empathise with the policemans's actions. We do not empathise with the accomplice, however, as his actions violate the empathy deserving to the policeman.

So there we have two tests appearing. Does the action violate empathy in the individual case? Does the action improve or damage empathy overall? In theory, violations of empathy in the specific case might be justified by the overall good done to empathy. This could potentially be used as an excuse for assassinating tyrants like Hitler for the common good (although it moght well be argued that the punishment was proportionate to the crime in line with empathy). It might also be used to allow for the killing of an innocent (for example where a terrorist threatens the lives of many if the life is not taken). However, if this line is to be taken, then it should only be employed with reluctance, as we ignore the individual at our peril.

Beyond the question of how far empathy should go, two types of empathy should be distinguished here. They are what I shall call transplantative and appreciative empathy. Transplantative empathy is where one imagines oneself in the other's position. This seems to be the best understanding of the saying "Put yourself in their shoes". It is the easier type of empathy, requiring just the imagination to imagine your own situation being different. When one says "There but for the grace of God go I..." one means that one could easily have been in that situation oneself, an example of transplantative empathy.

Appreciative empathy is where, rather than imagining oneself in the other's position, one imagines oneself as the other person. This involves imagining being a different self, and is thus more difficult. It means accepting different characteristics as equally valid. It is argued that this is the better type of empathy. Transplantative empathy alone is not sufficient in many cases. Purely transplantative empathy would deny even physical differences. This is clearly ridiculous when it comes to, for example, appreciating problems that only the opposite gender face.

Furthermore, on racial issues transplantative empathy would certainly favour equality, but a type of equality where problems arising from differences are ignored rather than helped. Particularly in the USA there is an argument over 'affirmative action', positive discrimination in favour of minorites. Transplantative empathy would give everyone an equal chance, in not placing barriers in the way of others, treating them just as if one was "in their shoes". However, it takes appreciative empathy to understand that there are still problems of discrimination from the less enlightened, which mean that sometimes it is necessary to give minorities an advantage to even out the disadvantage. It is this appreciation of problems which we would not face even if "in the other's shoes" which is the root of appreciative empathy. It is superior because it is more realistic, and serves the base purpose of empathy better: Most of us would prefer empathy based on how the situation is to us, rather than how it would be to the one empathising. Appreciative empathy merely means recognising this preference in others.

It is hoped that this has given an insight into my reasons for using empathy as the basis of my moral system, and the type of empathy I mean: Appreciative empathy which extends as far as actions which do not themselves violate empathy.

Good News

A couple of pieces of good news today:

I found out that Publius has started blogging again, and judging from his posts so far, he is on fine form.

On a more personal note, I got the results back for my Law Moderations (first year exams at Oxford) and I got a Distinction, the highest grade I can get for them. Needless to say I am pleased! I know I said this wasn't a personal blog, but this news was relevant enough to the topics covered to justify the exception!