Can There Be Empathy for Those Who Commit Atrocious Acts?

Morton’s Empathy for the Devil addresses why morality can inhibit empathy. He believes that with morality comes a barrier that obstructs a person’s ability to feel empathy with those who commit acts of atrocity. His use of hypothetical situations help the audience show how barriers that inhibit one’s actions can be broken, without allowing the audience to get too emotionally attached to these situations. He then ties these situations together to show how various people can connect with another person’s acts of atrocity. While Morton mentions that people’s inability to overcome these barriers results in pseudo-empathy where people feel a false sense of empathy, he also suggests that various situations allow people to empathize with people that commit acts of atrocity to an extent. He concludes by asserting that ultimately these connections can never be truly empathetic because the barriers that they break shy in comparison to the barriers broken by heinous acts.

While much of Morton’s argument makes complete sense and is tough to dispute, his reference to the possibility of people empathizing with those who commit acts of atrocity because of unrelated experiences is questionable. Morton argues that bystanders can understand how such acts can be done but not why they are done. This is the point in Morton’s argument that is in my opinion most debatable. He later qualifies the statement saying that “very few of the situations [given in his text] are mutually compatible” (Morton 327) but these experiences are not even enough for a person to believe that they can empathize with those who commit heinous acts as pseudo-empathy would suggest. Before I delve too deeply into Morton’s argument in comparison to my own, I want to give you a better definition of what empathy is with the video below.

The important takeaway from this video in my mind is that oftentimes we cannot necessarily connect with people who have vastly different ideals and personalities than ourselves. In the context of Morton’s piece, some of the situations presented in Morton’s essay, such as the dog poop situation (with person U) and the shy guy situation (with person T), do not help a person empathize with a criminal while Morton argues that each situation helps a character empathize with people who commit acts of atrocity, such a person A in his essay. As seen by the causes of empathy in Stepian’s “Educating for Empathy”, empathy is provoked by an understanding of a person’s situation. While there are some seemingly trivial factors that can lead to empathy, such as a person’s overall happiness, these factors do not extend so far as being able to understand the motive behind a murder.


A doctor interacting with a patient, as described in Stepian’s essay.

Similarly to Morton, Stepian explains that there can be barriers to empathy present in a physician to patient interaction. The major barriers presented in Stepian’s essay are age and socioeconomic status. Despite a twisted angle on this, relating a typical civilian and a criminal would require breaking some socioeconomic barrier. However, unlike Morton, Stepian claims that there is a way to overcome these barriers. The physicians must take classes related to empathy that bring out skills necessary to empathize with people of all backgrounds so the end, these physicians are able to empathize with nearly all of their patients. Ultimately, Stepian argues that if someone works hard enough to try to truly understand a person’s situation, they can empathize with them. If it is inherently difficult to empathize with someone because of their situation, there must be extensive attention put into the situation to the point where the person can truly connect with him or her in order to empathize. I agree with the fact that it is theoretically possible from any person to empathize with another if they work hard enough at it, there are some cases where it is simply too much effort. For example, if someone murders another person, it is possible for someone to empathize with him or her, but it is so difficult to get past the atrocious act to put in the effort for someone who is seemingly undeserving. 

It is possible to see how Morton intends for all of the people in these situations to empathize with a criminal. For example, one way people can interpret how the dog poop woman (person U) is able to empathize with Criminal A, at least in part, is based on the notion that her experience before being able to clean the poop was a frustrating one. Because of the angle, Morton hints at the fact that she is able to empathize with the frustration that criminal A feels. However, this connection is not enough to be able to empathize with someone. When someone experiences such a different view from Person A, the only way to empathize with Person A is to find a significant connection or attachment to Person A’s situation.

While it is not to say that no one can empathize with people who commit acts of atrocity, there is only a select few that can, and this select few can only empathize with this person if they have enough of an understanding of the criminal’s situation. A mere sharing of frustration oftentimes is not enough to be able to empathize at all with one who commits heinous acts. This small disagreement with Morton’s argument is certainly not substantial enough to hinder an agreement with Morton’s argument as a whole.

Works Cited

CogSai. “What Is Empathy?” YouTube. YouTube, 05 June 2012. Web. 5 Nov. 2016.

Morton, Adam. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press 318, 2011.

Stepien, Kathy A., and Amy Baernstein. “Educating for Empathy: A Review.” Journal of General Internal Medicine, vol. 21, no. 5, 2006., pp. 524-530

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