Empathy. Do we need more of it for more morality?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0



I. Introduction

II. Features of Empathy

III. How do we use the information gained from empathic processes

IV. Are we losing our empathy skills?

V. The critics and the opponents of empathy

VI. Conclusion: do we need more empathy to lead moral lives?


Empathy – do we need more of it for more morality?

Ingrid Cip

Abstract Empathy seems to be a phylogenetically ancient mechanism that helps not only animals but also humans to cooperate and coexist in social communities. Many authors have covered the topic from philosophical, psychological and anthropological perspectives. In this paper, I will take a closer look into the features and different modes of empathy and how they are used in daily life by looking at practical examples how empathy is demonstrated and what the outcome is. I will then argue, that a healthy person can willingly and individually influence the level of empathy towards other people and use it either supportive or manipulative. In this context, I will highlight some of the negative comments on the concept of empathy and the concerns that are expressed. I will argue then, that the illusion that increased empathy in humans will lead to higher morality will not come up to the expectations.

Keywords Empathy·Morality·supportive empathy·manipulatory empathy·evolution of empathy·

I. Introduction

In times when man lived in hordes without a language to communicate, successful cooperation within his social group was essential for survival. But how could they coordinate their work in direction of a mutual goal? It was empathy, that allowed to quickly relate to emotional states of others without relying on cognitive processes (de Waal 2008) and therefore enabled cooperation. But this asset is older than man as we can see in animals. If you see a flock of birds taking off at the same time it was obviously not necessary that each of them knew what the danger was to just save all of them.

Empathy developed evolutionary to a more and more sophisticated quality, including the appraisal of another person´s situation and trying to understand the cause of her emotions (de Waal 2008).

In this paper, I want to address the question, if an increase in empathy in humans will lead to a morally better society.

In section II I will describe some of the different features of empathy which have been explained when dealing with the subject and refer to the differences in the approaches of some well-known authors.

Section III will describe how we often consciously use the information gained by an empathic process either for supportive actions but sometimes also use it solely to reach egoistic targets.

Section IV addresses the question if we are losing our empathic qualities, looking into some examples and trying to find reasons for this development.

Section V turns to the critics of the definitions of empathy as well as to opponents of “too much empathy” and how we can be misled despite meaning well.

In my conclusion in section VI I will discuss the need for more empathy or more moral to live a successful ethical life in our world.

II. Features of Empathy

From a psychological viewpoint Hoffman (2000) suggested a differentiated model that also described an ontogenetical stepwise approach:

“(1) global empathy – is an overall feeling of being influenced by the condition of another person – being infected like babies in a maternity ward; (2) in the ego centrical empathy a differentiation of self and other is already present, but no separate evaluation of the other is possible; (3) empathy for the other allocentric empathy implicates that the other one has psychic states other than the own; (4) symbolically conveyed empathy is hearing or reading of an emergency situation of another person; (5) empathy with groups is based on the possibility of a medialisation and collectivisation of symbolically conveyed empathy.

Hoffman does not explain in his model how empathy works in humans and what exactly do we mean by this term.

Philosophers on the other hand have come up with many different and often conflicting explanations.

Vignemont and Jacob (2012) describe feeling pain in a simple example: according to their definition a child getting a vaccine injection in the arm feels standard pain, the little sister, knowing how that feels, senses contagious pain – as if she had the received the vaccine herself. In contrast to the sister, the mother of the child does not feel the pain like she felt it in her own arm, but feels the pain of her little son – this constitutes empathic pain according to Vignemont and Jacob. But it is not even necessary to know the kind of pain the other person feels, even the knowledge, that the other one is hurt – by perceiving the other´s facial expression of hurt – is enough to feel the pain. But not any of these reactions are called empathic. You can feel the pain like being infected by the facial expression of the other – this would be a contagious pain. Feeling an empathetic pain would additionally mean that you are aware of the state of condition the other person is, you feel their sweating, fear, panic – whatever, but it is not you, who feels the pain, but the other person, and you are aware of it. According to Vignemont and Jacob there are 6 response characteristics to be fulfilled, in order to speak of empathy (affectivity, similarity, causality, ascription, revised ascription and care). I do not want to go into detail with this, but just show, how complicated it gets, when we want to differentiate empathy from standard mind reading, contagion or sympathy. And this is not the end of complication when defining exactly what we mean by a – from the above example – very simple reaction.

Amy Coplan (2011) (p.4) listed some of the most popular processes described as empathy:

“(A) Feeling what someone else feels
(B) Caring about someone else
(C) Being emotionally affected by someone else´s emotions and experiences, though not necessarily esperiencing the same emotions
(D) Imagining oneself in another´s situation
(E) Imagining being another in that other´s situation
(F) Making inferences about another´s mental states
(G) Some combination of the processes described in (A) – (F)”

Coplan suggests shortening the prerequisites to speak of empathy to 3 essential features:

“ 1. Affective matching: meaning that we have to slip into the emotional status of the other person to be able to come to a matching feeling
2. Other oriented perspective-taking: shall move us beyond our own experiences into that of the other person (easier if the other person is well-known)
3. Self-Other Differentiation: to be able to effectively assess the other´s situation we have to be very clear what is our own “story” to a situation and what is the other´s “

This still seems to be quite a complicated procedure – far from what we obviously were able to do when living in a horde.

But some authors seem to have fundamentally different approaches to empathy:

Zahavi (2008) and Goldman (2006) agree that empathy enables us to learn about the mental condition of another person. But while Goldman argues, that our mental situation adapts to the other´s mental situation either by recognising the feeling of the other person and therefore automatically developing a similar feeling (low-level mindreading), or by consciously simulating the feeling of the other person (high-level mindreading), Zahavi argues that we do not need the detour via simulation but can directly observe the mental situation of the other person.

But all this is only one side of the process: with all those features we still cannot be completely sure, if we really understand the other person right – unless we ask her.

And how do all these processes explain our capability to emphasize with photographs, pictures, novel heroes or even moving objects “dancing” before our eyes.

The fact, that we can “feel what they feel” shows, that we also are able to draw conclusions or invent emotional states of things we see – even if they are abstract. So, in any case we have to be very careful in our judgements – there is always the possibility that we are wrong.

III. How do we use the information gained from empathic processes

Information gained from empathic processes can be used in many ways. In our normal daily activities, we probably use it automatically to assess the mental situation of those in our direct surrounding, be it school, work, neighbourhood and friends in order to react accordingly. This is part of our daily communication. We need to know what the mood of our boss is, especially when we plan to ask for a salary-increase. If we come home late it will be useful to assess how our spouse reacts to this and if it is wise to joyfully tell her of the nice chat at the bar with our colleagues after work, or rather leave that part of our day untold.

But when it comes to a deeper dive into the mental and physical situation of maybe a patient at the doctor or an elderly person in a nursing home this needs additional effort and training. Especially doctors need a quick assessment of the patient´s situation, but also have to let go of too empathic feelings with every suffering individual. If you ask GP´s what significance empathy has for them (Derksen et al 2014) they confirm the high importance of being empathic (maybe a socially expected answer?) and the requirements needed to act accordingly: more time, efficient practice organization, good own mental and physical condition, regular intervision etc.

Nurses need empathy to ease pain of any origin and support healing, or help elderly people find satisfying ways to live their last years in a retirement home. What nurses experience in their daily work is not always very motivating. So they have to use different techniques to be sufficiently empathic without suffering from taking pity with everyone. Empathy in such a professional context must be different than every day’s use of it.


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Empathy. Do we need more of it for more morality?
University of Vienna  (Philosophie)
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empathy, morality, evolution of empathy
Quote paper
Ingrid Cip (Author), 2017, Empathy. Do we need more of it for more morality?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/374406


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