Disagreement with Adam Morton on pseudo empathy definition

In his article ‘Empathy for the devil’, Adam Morton mainly discussed one question: why it is hard for us to empathize with people who do atrocious acts. According to Morton, being too morally sensitive restricts our ability to identify imaginatively with important parts of human possibility, in this case, atrocious behaviors. He begins his argument by discussing the distinction between ‘why’ and ‘how’ in understanding people’s behavior. He uses the example of A-assault and X-taxi to illustrate his point: A assaults C because he thinks C is doing work too slow; X verbally abuse a taxi driver which he regretted later also because the driver is driving too slow. In a prison meeting, X thinks he can fully empathize with A because he has been in similar situation. But according to Morton, X is wrong because although he knows ‘why’ A assault C, he doesn’t understand ‘how’ A was able to overcome his inherent moral barrier to attack people, which brings up the conception ‘pseudo empathy’. Morton defines pseudo empathy as an empathetic feeling that is not accompanied by understanding. In other words, knowing the motive or reason of another person’s act gives us a feeling of empathy, but not everything feels like empathy can do empathy’s work. Only if we understand how the person overcomes his inner barrier can we fully empathize with him.

However, I think the Morton’s definition of pseudo empathy in terms of understanding ‘why and ‘how’ is still a little ambiguous and not comprehensive enough. Sometimes, even if we are fully aware of ‘why’ and ‘how’ another person performs an act, we are still unable to truly empathize with him. The difference in background and sensitiveness that varies from individuals to individual makes it even harder for us to form real empathy.

One tends to feel difficult to empathize towards another person who has different background. Nelson and Baumgarte (2004) proposed a test of how cultural similarity affects perspective taking and empathy for an interpersonal target: To manipulate cultural similarity, participants were presented with scenarios of distressed targets who acted according to values that were ostensibly Western/individualistic or Asian/collectivistic. The American sample felt more similar to the target whose behavior was ostensibly Western, and as the model predicted, this difference in perceived similarity flowed on to heightened empathy toward the target, with cognitive perspective taking as a mediator. Nelson and Baumgarte concluded that perceived cultural dissimilarity can reduce perspective taking and empathy. (CBIC). This conclusion is not a surprise, real empathy requires us to feel closely if not exactly what another person feels, but our difference in background which gives us different perspectives of thinking and different sensitiveness towards things can often alienate our feelings. Therefore, understanding ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the acts of the person may give us a feeling of empathy, but it is not enough to be called real empathy since our feelings or our sensitiveness towards the same thing varies with our own background. For example, A’s dog that accompanied him for years just died and since A really loves his dog, he was unable to recover from the pain of losing his dog for months. B’s dog also died, and since he is not that emotionally sensitive, he felt upset for a few days and then moved on. In this case, B knows perfectly ‘why’ and ‘how’ A feels sorry for his dog’s death, but the intensity of pain, or the degrees of harsh feeling is totally different because of their different personal backgrounds; therefore in this case, B is feeling pseudo empathy, not real empathy for A.

The same thing also happened in the movie ‘A time to kill’. Jack’s closing argument successfully arise the empathy among juries which lead to the final acquittal of Carl Lee. In this case, it is also pseudo empathy because the racial prejudice was so deeply rooted in juries’ mind that they will never be able to truly empathize with black person. What Jake did was leading them to think of a white girl and form pseudo empathy towards Carl which could be enough to acquit him.

Getting back to Morton’s argument, what I suggest is that when we try to fully empathize with another person, in addition to understanding ‘how’ and ‘why’ the person performs the act, we should also take factors like different personal backgrounds into account in order to avoid pseudo empathy.

work cited

Heinke.MS, and WR Louis. “Cultural Background and Individualistic-Collectivistic Values in Relation to Similarity, Perspective Taking, and Empathy.” JOURNAL OF APPLIED SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, 2009, pp. 2570-2590.

Nelson, Donna W., and Roger Baumgarte. “Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings Reduce Empathic Responding1.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 34, no. 2, 2004., pp. 391-401

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