Does Morton raise a right definition of empathy?

In the article Empathy for the Devil the author Adam Morton mainly argues about the point that people take a kind of quite different kind of empathy toward another person’s atrocious act. He elaborates his ideas by firstly claim that we as morally sensitive people have limited capacity to empathize people’s atrocious actions even though we consider that we can fully understand them(Morton 319). Morton uses a large amount of space to elaborate this idea by sticking to distinguish the inherent differences between understanding “why” a person does something and understanding “how” this person does this thing. He argues that though we normally can understand the reasons or motives for a person to perform an atrocious act thus we can feel how he feels inside his heart, this is not real empathy after all. At this point Morton introduces an important concept called “barrier” to explain that we,as outsiders, may fully empathize with that person only after we break this “barrier” insider our heart to fully understand how on earth at the end he makes this atrocious act happened(Morton 320). At the bottom part of his article Morton claims people normally confuse the feeling of empathy with pseudo-empathy, indicating that though we usually think we can empathize a person actually, we understand nothing about it at all(Morton 327).

While Morton argues his point with clear logic and reasoning, I found myself doubted about his very definition of what composes “empathy”. Morton argues that people may easily grab “why” a person does something but normally fail to truly understand “how” he performs his final act. And according to Morton this is not real empathy at all. But for me I don’t think that if I wanted to fully empathize a person for killing someone who cruelly hurt his loved ones I had to be willing to perform the killing as well. I tend to say that I know how hurtful it feels if my significant other was cruelly assaulted, I can feel the stabbing pain inside my heart and I’d say that killing this psychopath is a reasonable act. But I don’t have to feel that I want to pull this psychopath out of his grave to kill him again to be called having “real empathy” with this person as Morton suggested. Douglas Hollan suggests the same definition of empathy as mine in the author reply of his book The Definition and Morality of Empathy, in which he states that understand “why” a person feels in his heart and “why” he intends to do the thing he does is the most essential point of being empathized with the person(Hollan). Hollan admits that currently there are multiple confusions about what should be defined as “empathy”. Though we have to be familiar with varieties of empathic expressions all over the world to come to a thorough definition, we only have to stick to the very basic point of empathizing another person. And that is understanding the reasons and motives for a person to perform an act is all we need to be empathized with him(Hollan).

Morton’s argument of in order to have real empathy in a person we should break our inner barrier to understand “how” a person performs his act at last seems somehow fetched and distorted to me, it makes readers feel vague and disordered about the empathy that we apply in our every day life. After viewers read my disagreement I believe they can have a more clear overview on what is empathy: it should be defined as a broader and more straightforward daily attitude rather than a too narrow and specific classification.



Hollan, Douglas. “The Definition and Morality of Empathy.” EMOTION REVIEW, Jan 2012,vol. 4, no. 1, 2012., pp. 83-83 doi:10.1177/1754073911421396.

Morton, Adam.“Empathy For The Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and           Psychological Perspectives, edited by Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie, Oxford University Press, 2011, 318-330.

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