Not By Empathy Alone

by gwern 12 min read5th Oct 2011109 comments


The following are extracts from the paper “Is Empathy Necessary For Morality?” (philpapers) by Jesse Prinz (WP) of CUNY; recently linked in a David Brooks New York Times column, “The Limits of Empathy”:

1 Introduction

Not only is there little evidence for the claim that empathy is necessary, there is also reason to think empathy can interfere with the ends of morality. A capacity for empathy might make us better people, but placing empathy at the center of our moral lives may be ill‐advised. That is not to say that morality shouldn’t centrally involve emotions. I think emotions are essential for moral judgment and moral motivation (Prinz, 2007)1. It’s just that empathetic emotions are not ideally suited for these jobs.

2 Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Judgment?

…For example, one might judge that charity is good, or that wife beating is bad. According to the view under consideration these judgments depend on empathetic responses: we empathize with the positive feelings experienced by the recipients of charity and with the negative feelings of those who fall prey to domestic violence. It is these empathetic responses that allow one to see these actions as good and bad respectively.

…[but] consider cases where deontological considerations overrule utilitarian principles. For example, one might judge that it is bad to kill an innocent person even if his vital organs could be used to save five others who desperately need transplants. Here, arguably, we feel cumulatively more empathy for the five people in need than for the one healthy person, but our moral judgment does not track that empathetic response. Second, consider the moral judgments one might issue from behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance; you might decide it’s good to distribute resources to the needy because you might be needy. Here there is no empathy for the needy, but rather concern for the self. Third, while on the topic of the self, consider cases in which you yourself are the victim of a moral transgression. You judge that you’ve been wronged, but you don’t thereby empathize with yourself, whatever that would mean. Fourth, consider cases in which there is no salient victim. One can judge that it would be wrong to evade taxes or steal from a department store, for instance, without dwelling first on the suffering of those who would be harmed. Fifth, there are victimless transgressions, such as necrophilia, consensual sibling incest, destruction of (unpopulated) places in the environment, or desecration of a grave of someone who has no surviving relative. Empathy makes no sense in these cases. As a descriptive claim it seems wrong to suppose that empathy is a precondition for moral judgment.

…It might be objected that empathy is needed to construe an action as greedy, but I find that implausible. I can recognize an action as greedy without putting myself in someone else’s shoes. It’s cognitively cumbersome to think I route through the simulation of another person every time I classify some behavior as greedy (or thieving, or murderous, or incestuous, or nepotistic, or indecent, and so on, for everything I am apt to condemn as morally bad). Morally significant actions can be recognized without empathy, even if those actions are ones that involve harm. We need not reflect on the harm to see that the action is bad. Perhaps you are delighted that I ate the last cookie. I recognize that, empathetically, and I still feel guilty; I still think I should have offered the cookie to you.

If this is right, then empathy is not a necessary precursor to moral judgment. I emphasize this point, because it is sometimes presumed that sentimentalist theories of moral judgment must be empathy‐based theories. The tradition that includes David Hume and Adam Smith has placed empathy in a central place. It is even sometimes suggested that empathy is the fundamental affective response involved in moral judgment. That is a mistake. The emotions just mentioned have been demonstrated to play a major part in morality. One can advance a sentimentalist theory based on such emotions as anger and guilt, while giving only marginal import to empathy. Empathy may help us come to the conclusion that a particular action is wrong on a particular occasion, but it hardly seems necessary for that purpose.

3 Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Development?

…The emergence of empathy has been extensively investigated, and some developmentalists speculate that empathy plays an essential role in developing a sense of morality (Hoffman, 2000)2. Conceptually, the idea has much appeal.

…It’s somewhat difficult to find evidence for developmental hypotheses of this kind. Most studies of normally developing children measure relationships between empathy and morally relevant behaviors such as aggression and helping behaviors (Eisenberg et al., 2006)3. But what’s really at issue here is whether empathy gives rise to the capacity to make moral judgments. Studies do show that children engage in empathetic reasoning when making moral judgments (Eisenberg‐Berg, 1979)4, but they do not show that empathy is essential to moral judgment.

…To assess the necessity thesis, researchers must consider pathological populations. They must identify people who lack empathy and see whether they lack moral competence as a result. Blair (1995)5 takes on precisely this challenge. His study investigates morality in psychopaths. Lack of empathy is a diagnostic criterion for psychopathy (Hare, 1991), and Blair shows that psychopaths also suffer from a profound deficit in moral competence. In particular, they do not draw a distinction between moral rules (e.g., don’t hit people) and conventional rules (e.g., rules about what clothing to wear in school). Blair concludes that psychopaths’ failure to draw this distinction indicates that they do not comprehend the essence of moral rules. When they say that something is “morally wrong,” they don’t really understand what these words mean. Blair speculates that this failure is a direct result of the empathy deficit.

…One of the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy is “criminal versatility,” which suggests that psychopathy does not stem from a specific deficit in violence inhibition, as Blair’s model suggests. Third, there is evidence that normally developing children draw the moral/conventional distinction well before they associate empathy with morality. Smetana and Braeges (1990)6 show sensitivity to the distinction before the third birthday, and Eisenberg‐Berg (1979) shows that empathy does not enter actively into moral reasoning until high school. Fourth, there are other explanations of why psychopaths have deficits in both empathy and moral competence: these two deficits may arise from a third cause. In particular, psychopaths suffer from a more general deficit in moral emotions. “Shallow Affect” is one of the diagnostic criteria on psychopathy….Psychopaths are also poor at recognizing emotions, especially fear and sadness— and recognition deficits are known to be correlated with deficits in emotional experience (Blair et al., 2002)7. These affective abnormalities could explain both the low levels of empathy in psychopaths and the lack of moral competence. Empathy requires a disposition to experience emotions appropriate for another person, and a person with shallow affect and poor emotional recognition will have a diminished capacity for empathy as a result. The emotion deficit will also make an individual comparatively insensitive to common methods of moral education: they will be relatively indifferent to punishment, because they have low levels of fear, and they will be unmoved by love withdrawal, because they have low levels of sadness. They will also have a diminished capacity for emotions like guilt, which seem to have sadness as a component (Prinz, 2004)8, and moral anger. So psychopaths will lack emotions that facilitate moral education as well as the emotions that constitute moral judgments on the model that I outlined in the previous section. Therefore, the deficit in moral competence can be explained without appeal to the empathy deficit.

4 Is Empathy Necessary for Moral Conduct?

…Still it might be conjectured that empathy is necessary in another way: it might be necessary for moral motivation. Let’s suppose someone arrives at the judgment that it would be good to give charity. It might be possible to make such a judgment without feeling motivated to act on it. Perhaps empathy with the recipients of charity is what converts moral judgment into moral conduct. Or suppose someone comes to think it’s bad to abuse his spouse. Without empathy for her, he might continue to be abusive.

…[but] Anger promotes aggression, disgust promotes withdrawal, guilt promotes reparation, and shame promotes self‐concealment. More generally, these emotions are negatively valenced, and negative emotions are things we work to avoid (Prinz, 2004). If we anticipate that an action will make us feel guilty, we will be thereby inclined to avoid that action. The guilt‐prone would‐be wife beater might learn to overcome his abusive rages. It follows from this that moral judgments, which contain emotions, are intrinsically motivating states. A person who judges that stealing is wrong, for example, will be motivated to resist the urge to steal, even when it would be easy and lucrative. Such a person will also be motivated to prevent others from stealing; for example, those who think stealing is wrong might report a shoplifter to store clerk even though this intervention carries some risk and no direct reward. And this is just half the story. I have been focusing on disapprobation. There may also be a suite of positive emotions associated with moral approbation. Good behavior by others elicits admiration and gratitude, as remarked above. And the person who engages in good behavior feels pride or gratification. Anticipating these good feelings can lead to good actions. On this view, moral judgments have plenty of motivational impact in the absence of empathy.

…That empathy leads to action is actually quite weak. …In an extensive meta‐analysis, Underwood and Moore (1982)9 show that there is a positive correlation between emotion attribution and prosocial behavior in children, but no correlation between empathy and prosocial behavior. Indeed, a number of the studies show negative correlations between empathy and altruism. Critics have worried that the studies contained in this meta‐ analysis are flawed because they measure empathy by self report (though measures include non‐verbal self report, such as asking children to point out a facial expression corresponding to how they feel). In lieu of self report, Eisenberg et al. (1989)10 used observers’ reports and found that prosocial behavior is positively correlated with “concerned attention” in children. A child who wrinkles her brow when watching someone in need, is more likely to help. But no correlation was found for “shared emotion.”…There are modest correlations in adults between prosocial behavior and shared sadness (Eisenberg et al., 1989). Adults who looked sad while watching a film about a woman whose children had been in a car wreck were slightly more likely to offer to help that woman with yard work when, later in the experiment, they read a letter from her requesting help. But this study does not establish that empathy, in general, relates to altruism, because it is restricted to sadness. And curiously, there is no correlation between expressions of sadness while reading the letter, and the decision to help, which is made just afterwards….A meta‐analysis shows that empathy only weakly correlated with prosocial behavior (Neuberg, et al., 1997)11. More strikingly, the correlation appears only when there is little cost. If someone has to do something as easy as crossing a street to help someone in need, they are not especially likely to, and those who are empathetic show no greater tendency to help in such circumstances than those who are not.

…The meager effects of empathy are greatly overshadowed by other emotions. Consider, for example, positive affect. Above, I suggested the feelings of approbation are positive and positive emotions may help to explain why people do good things. Empirical support for this hypothesis comes from the large literature on positive emotions and helping (Carlson et al., 1988)12. For example, Isen and Levin (1982)13 induced positive affect by planting a dime in a neighborhood phone booth. They then watched to see whether the person who found the dime would help a passerby who dropped some papers. Among those who found the dime, 87.5% helped. Among those in the control condition, where there was no dime planted in the phone, only 4% helped. Other studies have not always shown such a large effect size, but they do tend to confirm that a small dose of happiness seems to promote considerable altruism. This is often true even when the altruism is costly. For example, Weyant (1978)14 found that people who are made to feel good by being given an easy test to solve are almost twice as likely, when compared to neutral controls, to volunteer for a charity that requires going door to door collecting donation. Happiness seems to make us work for people in need. This conclusion is embarrassing for those who think empathy is crucial for altruism because vicarious distress presumably has a negative correlation with positive happiness.

…[And on the flip side] Lerner et al. (1998)15 showed subjects emotion‐inducing film clips and then probed their attitudes towards punishment on unrelated vignettes. Subjects who watched anger inducing films recommended harsher punishments than those in the control condition. Studies using economic games have shown that, when angry, people are even willing to pay significant costs to punish those who fail to cooperate (Fehr and Gächter, 2002)16. This contrasts strikingly with empathy, which does not motivate moral behavior when there are significant costs. Guilt is also a great motivator. In a study by Carlsmith and Gross (1969)17 subjects were asked to make some fundraising phone calls for a charity organization after they administered shocks to an innocent person. These subjects made more than three times as many fundraising calls as the subjects in a control condition where no shocks were administered.

5 Should we Cultivate An Empathy Based Morality?

…empathy may lead to preferential treatment. Batson et al. (1995)18 presented subjects with a vignette about a woman, Sheri, awaiting medical treatment, and then asked them if they wanted to move Sheri to the top of the waitlist, above others who were more needy. In the control condition, the majority declined to more her up the list, but in a condition where they were encouraged to empathize with Sheri, they overwhelmingly elected to move her up at the expense of those in greater need.

…Third, empathy may be subject to unfortunate biases including cuteness effects. Batson et al. (2005)19 found that college students were more likely to feel empathetic concern for children, dogs, and puppies than their own peers. Batson’s notion of empathetic concern is not equivalent to empathy, as I am defining it, because it does not require feeling what the object of empathy should feel, but I think cuteness effects would also arise for empathy. For example, I’d wager that we would feel more vicarious sadness for a dying mouse than a rat, and more vicarious fear for a frog crossing the highway than a lizard. It has also been found that empathetic accuracy—which includes the ability to identify someone else’s emotions, and, thus, perhaps, to mirror them—increases when the target is viewed as attractive (Ickes et al., 1990)20.

Fourth, empathy can be easily manipulated. Tsoudis (2002) found that in mock trials, a jury’s recommendation for sentencing could be influenced by whether or not victims and defendants expressed emotions. When sadness was expressed, empathy went up, ingratiating the jury to the one who expressed the sadness. Sad victims evoked harsher sentences, and sad defendants got lighter sentences.

…Sixth, empathy is prone to in‐group biases. We have more empathy for those we see as like us, and that empathy is also more efficacious. Brown et al. (2006)21 found that when viewing pictures of faces, people show more empathetic responses, as measured by physiology and self report, for members of the same ethnic group. Stürmer et al. (2005)22 found that empathy leads to helping only in cases when the person in need is a member of the in‐group. In one of their studies, participants learn about someone who may have contracted hepatitis and their willingness to offer support, such as talking on the phone, depended on both empathy and whether the person had the same sexual orientation as the participant. This strong in‐group bias doesn’t show up in every study, but even if only occasional, it is something that defenders of empathy should worry about.

Seventh, empathy is subject to proximity effects. There was an outpouring of support for the Katrina hurricane victims in the United States in 2005, and passionate expressions of empathy for the victims is still frequently expressed in public discourse here. The death toll was 1,836. A year later, an earthquake in Java killed 5,782 people and there was little news coverage in comparison. I would venture to guess that few Americans remember the incident.

Eighth, empathy is subject to salience effects. Natural disasters and wars are salient, news worthy events. The happen during temporary circumscribed periods in localized areas, and can be characterized in narrative terms (preconditions, the catastrophe, the aftermath). Other causes of mass death are less salient, because they are too constant and diffuse to be news items. This is the case with hunger and disease. To put some depressing numbers on the problem consider the following: malaria is estimated to kill between 1.5 and 4 million people a year; tuberculosis kills 2 million; and AIDS kills 2.8 million. Hunger is the biggest killer of all: 9 million die each year for lack of food. That means that every single day, there are 24 Katrinas. 10.5 times the number of people who died in Katrina die each day from preventable diseases, and 13.5 times as many people die from malnutrition. These deaths are not salient, so they induce little empathy.

In sum, empathy has serious shortcomings.


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