The Effect of Morality on Empathy

Empathy is one of the most difficult topics to understand. There is no agreed upon definition in the academic community, and in the common population it is often misunderstood. The video above provides a strong definition of empathy. The reality is that is a very broad and oversimplified definition; however I could write a whole separate essay defining empathy, and this enough for the purpose of this blog. One thing that I have found is that people believe that they can easily empathize; yet we still see limitations in human empathy. With this it is apparent that human ability to empathize is fluid based on situation. So how do different factors affect human ability to empathize? One such factor is morality. Human ability to empathize is strongly influenced by our moral code. The three blog summaries below examine how morality interacts with our ability to empathize.

First on the relationship between empathy and morality. Majority of the research is geared toward how empathy affects human ability to make moral judgements. The relationship between the two, however, is not unidirectional. “Since our aesthetic judgement is affected by the moral character of the object of aesthetic judgement, a person’s moral decisions might influence the extent to which we empathize with this person,” (Ugazio et al, 167). Empathizing is easier when the person that is the object of the empathy is similar to the empathizer. Thus when morality is involved when the moral codes of the two people line up, empathy occurs with greater ease.

In “Where Morton Gets It Wrong” there is this idea that sometimes our morals rightfully inhibit us from empathizing with others. In his essay, “Empathy for the Devil,” Morton suggests that as a society we are unwilling, not unable, to empathize with those who commit true atrocities, and that this limits our ability to fully empathize in every day situations (Morton, 330). I disagree. Our moral values prevent us from empathizing with those who have committed true atrocities. We need that moral value to prevent us from empathizing and in turn preventing us from committing atrocities ourselves.Because the moral codes of the person who committed the atrocity don’t align with our own moral code, empathy is inhibited.

In the second blog in this sequence “The Damage Social Media Does to Empathy” we examine another time when human morality may inhibit empathy; however, different from with Morton, in this case it can be damaging. The examination of how social media effects empathy is an especially controversial topic because of how young social media is. There are no guidelines on how to properly behave on social media, as there are proper ways to send an email or talk on the phone, so it is hard to understand how it is affecting our society. One specific case is that of 16-year-old Phoebe Cannop, who received negative backlash after she created a racist photograph of her self. Because of the backlash she ended up taking her own life (Matthews). While social media does a lot of good, but in the long run it lowers our ability to empathize with individuals. Our inability to see the whole person behind a social media post allows us to view them for the one disagreeable post and label ourselves as morally superior. While someone may see it as a misalignment of moral codes, it is only perceived and not true misalignment. Empathy is inhibited none the less, but it can cause detrimental effects to the person on the other side of the screen who may have been misjudged.

Finally in “The Demystification of Jean Louise”, through the book Go Set a Watchman, an examination of how growing up and developing our own moral codes that differ from the morals of someone who we hold dear can affect our ability to empathize with them. Jean Louise grows up and learns that Atticus and her hometown are not what she remembered. It is difficult because she loves Atticus dearly, but this fundamental moral disagreement that she has with him is pulling her away (Lee). Initially Jean Louise finds it difficult to empathize with Atticus because she feels his morals are misaligned with her own. She finds the disagreement forces a distance between them that was never there when she was a child. Ultimately she is able to overcome the barrier presented by her morality in order to empathize with her father again.

The relationship between morality and empathy is complex and interwoven. In the three blogs we see empathy and morality reacting to each other, each with very different outcomes. In the first morality rightfully inhibits empathy, the second morality inhibits empathy when it might not necessarily be good to do so, and in the third a moral disagreement doesn’t ultimately inhibit empathy.  The situational complexity of each case effects the desired outcome of the relationship between morality and empathy, however they all have the same initial reaction of misaligned (at least perceived) morals inhibiting empathy. It is important to attempt to understand this complex relationship in order to understand the empathy that humans possess. The more aware we are of the different limitations and relationships of empathy the better we are able to understand the concept of empathy as a whole.

Works Cited:

Brené Brown on Empathy. Perf. Dr. Brené Brown. Illus. Katy Davis.  The RSA., 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 6 Nov. 2016.

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. First Harper Perennial ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2016. Print.

Matthews, Alex. “Halesowen Teen Took Own Life after Fearing She’s Be Called …” Daily N.p., 28 Aug. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.

Morton, Adam. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2014. 318-330. Print.

Ugazio, Guiseppe, Jasminka Majdandžić, and Claus Lamm. “Are Empathy and Morality Linked?” Empathy and Morality. Ed. Heidi Lene Maibom. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. 155-71. Print.


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