The main focus of Adam Morton’s essay, Empathy for the Devil, is the inability to empathize with people who commit atrocities. This stems from the inherent barriers faced when attempting to understand and feel with someone who is committing a crime or act with which we would never normally condone. It is typically easier to understand the why of an atrocious act, and the motives behind it, than it is to understand how someone was able to break ethical standards. This returns to the barriers, which create pseudo-empathy rather than genuine empathy. One can imagine what another may be feeling, but cannot actually experience the emotions and motivations themselves, making it less accurate than the true emotion. However, in the fictional world, Morton emphasizes that we can empathize with fictional characters that commit atrocious acts since they are not real. Morton uses the evidence of Smith to show that we tend to empathize with only emotions we like or approve of, rather than all that we may feel if we were really in that situation. He continues with Hume, who clarifies that it is not that “we cannot sympathize with wrongdoers, but that we have difficulty imagining that what is wrong is right” (324). Morton concludes with the idea that in today’s society, we tend to exaggerate our ability to empathize accurately with those we “should’ empathize with, and suppress our ability to empathize with those who commit atrocities.
Morton highlights in a small section this idea of empathizing with fiction. He explains that this empathy is possible in part because an author works their writing to favor a fictional character that commits an atrocity so a reader understands the motivation, so we more easily understand the why of the action. The character is supposed to be, to an extent, relatable so the distance between the public audience and the fictional character appears to be lessened. The empathy is also possible because we know this to be unrealistic, therefore it is easier to understand the act when we believe it wouldn’t occur in the real world. However, I disagree that these fictional characters are so easy to empathize with. Morton uses an example of characters living in a society where rape is casual or babies are eaten to start off his use of Hume’s argument (324). For someone in the real world, atrocities are extremely difficult to empathize with regardless of whether or not the character is “relatable” or if it seems “realistic”. For example, in many action films and comics, the protagonist is frequently portrayed as a big hero, they capture the bad guy, save the world, and rescue the female lead. Because this is something many people in the real world aspire to be – a “hero” – they feel as if they can relate to him more, even as they watch him beat up and kill all of the security guards and side kicks that try to stop him. In the real world, this would certainly be considered an atrocity and the man would face severe repercussions. But because this seems so unrealistic, and this character is someone that is idolized, empathy goes forgotten. We hold no empathy for the men that are murdered because they are typically side characters, people so insignificant that we feel no sympathy that they are dead. Their families are not considered, their lives are not considered, we just know that they are “bad” so empathy is not present. The research study entitled “Some Like It Bad:…” discusses empathy for negatively portrayed fictional characters, and how some people genuinely identify better with “bad characters” (Konijn and Hoorn, 5). The “good” characters may have the good intentions, but their actions can also be atrocious at times. Looking at it realistically, the villains of films typically do less damage than the actual hero does. Konijn and Hoorn reflect this in their research, because when people recognize that the bad characters are not so bad, it becomes easier to empathize with them. When it is brought to awareness that good characters are not so pure, it becomes harder to relate to them. Once empathy is taken into account and it’s possible that these heroic acts were actually quite atrocious, it seems much harder to relate to the main character and empathize with them. Therefore, in disagreement with Morton, when both the how and why of a fictional atrocious act is easily understood, the realistic effects of this act and its huge negative impact are lost in the fictional world.
This changes the view of Morton’s argument slightly, because he uses this as a counterargument that sometimes empathy can be felt for bad people, but even at this point, it is not relatable enough for an audience to empathize with someone who commits an atrocious act, even if it is not real.
Morton, Adam. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press 318, 2011.