When I speak with atheists about morality they tend to want to talk about Empathy rather than Love. Maybe empathy seems more “scientific” or exact and, of course, it is less Christian sounding. It is true that “Love” has many different meanings and the Christian view of Love, agape, is only one sense of the term. Here I will again offer the Aquinas definition as being good enough for our purposes:
“To love is to will the good of another.”
Empathy also has a few different meanings. Generally, it seems that there are about 3 general types taking shape in the literature: Emotional (aka, affective), Cognitive, and Compassionate.
“Cognitive empathy” is the ability to figure out what someone else will feel.
“Emotional empathy” is the one found especially lacking in sociopaths. Emotional empathy is actually feeling the feelings of others. With this empathy our brains actually fire in the areas as though we are directly feeling a pain when we see someone else being hurt.
“Compassionate empathy” is mostly marked off by including a desire to help when someone is suffering. It may start out from the emotional empathy but it then brings about a will to act. In short Compassionate empathy basically adds Christian love to the equation. And indeed, we can do exercises called, unsurprisingly “loving-kindness” meditation that may improve our compassionate empathy.
So what should we make of these three types of empathy from a moral perspective?
As Christians we are called to love each other and compassionate empathy in the literature is what is most closely associated with that term as understood by Aquinas. Compassionate empathy adds willing the good of another into the mental state, which as we know is basically Christian love. Love is a root, if not the root, of Christian Morality, so yes, I am all for that.
Cognitive empathy seems fine enough just like any sort of knowledge. It might have practical benefits in helping us serve others. However, it is also the type of empathy that allows sociopaths to manipulate others as they seem more adept at this type of empathy than they are at the other two. But, on the whole, I would say simply having knowledge is not itself morally meritorious. Like all knowledge I think it is good to have this knowledge but not necessarily morally good.
But what about the emotional empathy? That is the form of empathy where you feel what someone else feels. It is the form of empathy I think most scientists would refer to, unless they specify otherwise. (And from this point forward I will just refer to emotional empathy as empathy.) This is the empathy that most clearly separates the sociopath (who is lacking in this form of empathy) from the normal person. Sociopaths are, of course, traditionally seen as morally deficient people. But our new scientific understandings of emotional empathy makes it tricky from a moral perspective. Let’s dig deeper into what science tells us about this type of empathy.
Emotional Empathy is a feeling we get. And as such it is not necessarily meritorious or culpable in itself. It can help us to love, and to that extent it can be beneficial. But there are some important points to make.
Empathy Mitigates our Good Deeds by Making them Self Centered
First it seems that emotional empathy makes many moral actions, well, less “selfless.”
“As kids, we are told not to hurt others, and we are told not to speak with our mouth full. Kids quickly come to feel very different about violating these two types of rules. Empathy is what makes the difference. Each time you hurt someone, that person’s distress becomes your pain, and you start to associate your vicarious pain with harming others. Violence then starts to feel intrinsically bad. Helping others, on the other hand, makes you feel their happiness, and will start to feel good.”
When we avoid hurting others due to empathy, in a real sense, we are actually avoiding hurting ourselves. When we bring others joy we are bringing ourselves joy. To the extent we have more empathy we are acting in our own interest when we avoid hurting others. Sociopaths do not have this pain when they hurt others so they are not restrained by their own self centered desires.
The very same parts of the brain can be triggered by emotional empathy that are triggered when we are directly hurt. As explained by Bloom in his book “Against Empathy”:
“I feel your pain” isn’t just a gooey metaphor; it can be made neurologically literal: Other people’s pain really does activate the same brain area as your own pain, and more generally, there is neural evidence for a correspondence between self and other.”
“For example, meta-analyses on empathy for pain studies have revealed that a portion of the anterior insula and a specific part of the anterior cingulate cortex were consistently activated, both during the experience of pain as well as when vicariously feeling with the suffering of others.”
So in effect Empathy is like God giving us a shock every time we hurt others. But some people – sociopaths do not receive this corrective or it is much duller. To the extent this is why we act morally better than sociopaths I dare say we are not more moral at all. When our actions are simply driven by our own desire to avoid pain or discomfort we should not claim the moral high ground. Can this empathy transition into love? It seems it can but until we get full blown love and remain in simple emotional empathy – avoiding our own emotional pain or guilt seems to cut against what we should consider meritorious intentions.
Now to be clear I am not saying there is something wrong with acting in our self interest. We should act in our own interest all things being equal. But to the extent we are acting in self interest we shouldn’t think we can properly claim all the merit of acting selflessly for someone else. And it is that concern for others that we traditionally find most meritorious from a moral perspective.
Empathy Spreads Suffering
The other problem for some is that empathy would seem something we want to avoid if we adopt a morality that focuses on avoiding suffering. Empathy seems much more poignant when I see someone suffer than when I see someone celebrate. I share some joy but I think on the whole I would rather not have any empathy experiences as opposed to several empathetic experiences where I share extreme pain or agony coupled with experiences where someone undergoes great joys. Is it perhaps that envy is cutting into my joy of seeing others experience joy in a way that the empathy relating to pain seems undiluted? Research supports the conclusion that negative empathy is stronger than positive empathy:
“Empathy is the ability to perceive and react to another person’s emotions. Much attention has been paid to empathy regarding negative emotions, but little is known about how (or if) we respond to positive emotions in the same way. Now, a new study reports that joy may be harder to share than distress.”
But even if, contrary to current research, positive and negative empathy were to balance out or even if empathy of positive emotions was stronger we would still need to ask if empathy of suffering was good. That seems problematic if you want to say empathy and reducing suffering are both important. Empathy with someone’s suffering increases the suffering in the world. If we all see a horrible event where someone suffers pain and we have strong empathy we just magnified the amount of suffering in the world. You have the person who is actually suffering directly and then the suffering all of us empathic people feel! Whereas if we were all sociopaths well the person suffering would still suffer but that would be the extent of it.
As a Christian I certainly don’t view morality as mostly about avoiding pain/suffering so I do view empathy as a good springboard to love. But I think those who want to view morality in more simplistic terms – as systems to avoid suffering they have a real problem. The notions that suffering is a brain state and morality should be geared to avoid those brain states has a very hard case to say empathy with others suffering is morally good.
I imagine their argument will be along these lines: Empathy makes people not want to hurt others so less people will be directly hurt by others if we all have empathy. I would concede that may be true. I think it would still be mitigated by laws that even selfish sociopaths would want because they protect them as well as others. Laws would reduce the harm of sociopaths just like they do now.
The real problem for a morality that wants to be based on reducing suffering and yet wants to keep empathy is natural and unintentional suffering caused by natural disasters and diseases etc. If you are all about reducing suffering it seems difficult to argue that multiplying all that suffering to everyone else with empathy is worth the slight decrease in direct harm caused by others. It just seems that a morality based on reducing suffering would want to root out empathy. This is one reason why we can easily think of counterfactuals to moral systems that claim to be all about reducing suffering as I presented here:
Again, empathy is contrary to moral systems like Sam Harris’s that seem to want to claim morality is all about suffering and brain states of suffering. I of course do not believe morality works that way. I am not thrilled with suffering either – but the goal is love not just the ending of suffering. So to the extent suffering (through empathy) leads to love then it is ok and even desirable.
I go more into the problems with Harris’s view here:
In sum, to the extent emotional empathy removes the selfless intentions of our actions and increases suffering it can be problematic for some moral systems. Love on the other hand seems morally desirable all the time in just about every moral system.