Can empathy be morally neutral?

When we discuss the nature of empathy in our project group, we find it difficult to disentangle moral choices from acts of empathy. A lot of empathy research comes from attempts at reconciliation following conflict.  In a post-conflict situation where victims come face to face with perpetrators, they have usually decided in advance to give reconciliation a chance and to listen to the perpetrator’s story.  These choices may be supported or encouraged by society and social institutions, for example when a ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ is set up, but each person also makes an individual choice based on their personal moral code to respond to violence with deliberate empathy.

In contrast, the non-deliberate empathy as described in neuroscience seems to be morally-neutral. It’s about ‘feeling with’ the other person. With positive feelings, such as happiness or pleasure, we can simply ‘feel with’ the other person. But simply feeling pain and suffering with another person, without doing anything as a result, seems itself to be a moral choice.

So that there is space to examine the role of moral choices, our model of empathy makes a  key distinction between automatic and deliberate empathy.

One Response to “Can empathy be morally neutral?”
  1. Chelsea Simpson says:

    So much emphasis on “feelings” these days.

    People are defined by their actions not their feelings. If I am in pain I want the pain to be relieved. I don’t care if you feel it too or not if you help me to relieve it.

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