How can we overcome pseudo-empathy A disagreement about Adam Morton

In Adam Morton’s essay “Empathy for the Devil”, he addresses the question of how and why people empathize with the Devil. The empathy for the evil achieves when people connect the evil with the recall of their own ordinary cases and find the “similarity between joined cases” (Morton 329), and accompany with the overcoming of barriers, such as resolution, decency, and timidity. Otherwise, lack of deeper understanding, knowing why instead of how to empathize and wrong description of barriers trigger “pseudo-empathy” to happen. (Morton 327)

To elaborate, the author has two examples. One example of overcoming pseudo-empathy is that the reminiscence of personal struggling of quitting smoking makes one empathize with the other smoking person. The recall of own quitting experience enables the man to understand why the other man feel relief after restarting smoking and how he deals with the pain. Another example is that the owner of the dog can easily pick up a cake on her friend’s dress but cannot pick the poop up because of the loathing of excrement. If the owner can connect her feelings outside the situation and avoid the decency and disgusting emotion, she can get rid of pseudo-empathy and perform well.

However, from my perspective, I disagree with the author’s explanation of pseudo-empathy and the factors of misunderstanding of others. As for the author, he contends that “a connection with an evil action that preserves moral character at the price of describing the wrong kind of barrier makes pseudo-empathy, an empathetic feeling that is not accompanied by understanding”. (Morton 327) Instead of that, I believe pseudo-empathy not only includes the deviation of experiences from empathizer’s perspective but also disconnected standing of others’ position and experience. In order to fully understand and get rid of pseudo-empathy, both “self-oriented” perspective and “other-oriented” perspective is needed to be taken into consideration. I prefer to adopt Martin L. Hoffman’s definition of influential perspective-taking in empathy. According to Hoffman, of three types of perspective-taking, he emphasizes the “co-occurrence” which means people combine “self-oriented” empathy, appealing personal identification of the victims by recalling their similar painful experience, and “other-oriented” empathy, associated sympathy of victims by concentrating on others’ distress. (Hoffman 233) Although sometimes “self-oriented” empathy can “lead to quasi-empathic experiences” (Coplan54-55), which means two situations overlap with each other, in most of the time, “other-oriented” perspective taking needs more emotional controls and arrangements which are simulated by understanding from others’ viewpoints.

To illustrate that, during the class discussion, we talk about the empathy and understanding toward others’ bereavement. The recall of distress of losing our dogs cannot be regarded as “self-oriented” empathy because the similarity between two cases is extremely vague that cannot conduct accurate and deeper understanding of others. Despite distresses are happened at the same time, like I lose my grandpa and I empathize with my grandma, I still cannot generate non-pseudo empathy to my grandma without “other-oriented” thinking. Since the importance of my grandpa is different from my grandma and me, the extents of cognition of sadness are also in disparate levels. (class discussion) Furthermore, according to Amy Coplan, individuals prefer to alleviate their own discomfort by engaging only in self-oriented behaviors and automatically neglect true distress of others by blocking or neglecting their “others-directed” thinking abilities. (Coplan56-57)

In conclusion, the author’s belief that “we misdistribute our estimates of what we can intuitively understand” and “retrospective continuity” are not enough to explain the barriers of empathy and misunderstandings of others. (Morton 239) Concentration on personal experience is insufficient to avoid “non-pseudo” empathy and thus correctly stand in other’s positions. Besides “self-oriented” empathy, we also need “other-focused” empathy to prevent from the exaggerated ease and “alleviated discomfort”. (Coplan56-57) To be clear, the author’s suggestions for overcoming barriers and pseudo-empathy are relatively effective to reach the entire understanding; whereas some restrictions left are in need of “other-oriented” empathy to take place.

Cited from

Martin L. Hoffman. “Empathy, Justice and Law”. Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press. 2014. 213-254
Morton, Adam. “Empathy For The Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, edited by Amy Coplan, Peter Goldie, Oxford University Press, 2011, 318-330.

COPLAN, AMY. “will the Real Empathy Please Stand Up? a Case for a Narrow Conceptualization: Will the Real Empathy Please Stand Up?” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, vol. 49, 2011., pp. 40-65 doi:10.1111/j.2041-6962.2011.00056.x.

Class discussion WRT 105E 2016 FALL.41559, “Empathy & Ethics”, October 13th

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