Unattainable Empathy Under Morton’s Strict Guidelines

In Morton’s essay “Empathy for the Devil”, the overarching theme is how empathy plays a role in committing atrocities. He argues that empathy may be harder to define than we think and that the emotion we feel when attempting to empathize with people who have committed atrocities is skewed due to our lack of the ability to truly understand. He, however, defines empathy as representing the other persons’ emotions in your mind and having an accurate perception, rather than truly feeling what they feel. He argues that people often blow things out of proportion which leads to pseudo-empathy, a term he defines as when you think you are understanding what someone else feels, but really you are just feeling what you think you would feel, based on skewed perceptions of the situation. Replacing rage with annoyance because they are in the same class of anger is one of the ways pseudo-empathy comes into play, according to Morton. He argues that empathetic understanding gives us the how, rather than why a person could do what they did and that it is only easy to empathize in ordinary situations, so when someone commits an atrocity we neither want to be able to empathize with them nor do we think of ourselves as capable of empathizing with them. He references Adam Smith, and how he defines sympathy and empathy to show how when we think that the other person responds to a situation in the same way we would, we feel empathy, and if not we have a hard time with this. He also references the Milgram experiment and ideas from Hume for further support of his argument.

One thing that I am uneasy about in Morton’s argument is that our skewed perceptions are what inhibit us from empathizing with those who commit atrocities. If empathy is unattainable without accurate perceptions, I argue that empathy is an unattainable goal entirely. For example, a study of empathy in people with congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP) has shown that “a normal personal experience of pain is not necessarily required for perceiving and feeling empathy for others’ pain” (Danziger et al.). If people who literally cannot experience pain are able to empathize with others’ pain, what is stopping us from being able to empathize with those that have committed atrocities? It may be that Morton has too strict a definition of empathy or a misunderstanding of the use of empathy in the real world. Being the individuals that we are, our perspectives differ greatly and I do not believe that this restricts us from being able to empathize with others. However, I do agree with Morton on the point that it is easier to empathize with actions we have performed in the past ourselves, or those we could see ourselves performing rather than those we have never performed, nor wish to. In the aforementioned study, researchers also found that due to the lack of “functional somatic resonance mechanisms shaped by previous pain experiences, others’ pain might be greatly underestimated”, meaning that there is a possibility that skewed perceptions can make it more difficult to empathize (Danziger et al.). However, the study also showed that if “…the observer is endowed with sufficient empathic abilities to fully acknowledge the suffering experience of others in spite of his own insensitivity” this could allow for empathy (Danziger et al.). Therefore, having skewed perceptions is not the end-all for our empathetic abilities.

In light of this information, one may reconsider Morton’s argument in “Empathy for the Devil” and find that we do not need such strict guidelines for empathy. His argument for a difference between empathy and pseudo-empathy does not hold, due to the fact that we all have individualistic perceptions. With such strict guidelines, all empathy we feel would actually be considered pseudo-empathy and real empathy would only be a theoretical, unattainable concept. There may be different degrees to which one can feel empathy, based on personal experiences and abilities, but I do not believe in drawing a hard line between real empathy and pseudo-empathy based on inaccurate perceptions.

Works Cited

Danziger, Nicolas, Kenneth M. Prkachin, and Jean-Claude Willer. “Is Pain the Price of Empathy? the Perception of Others’ Pain in Patients with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain.” Brain : a journal of neurology 129.Pt 9 (2006): 2494-507. Web.

Morton, Adam, and Peter Goldie. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. By Amy Coplan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 318-30. Print.

12 thoughts on “Unattainable Empathy Under Morton’s Strict Guidelines

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