What attitude should we hold towards empathy for atrocities?

Adam Morton’s article “Empathy for the Devil” explains the reason why people find it hard to empathize with atrocious acts by elaborating on the differences between understanding why a person did something and how he did it. His instance is that, apart from figuring out why an act is done by identifying accurate empathetic emotions, there is still a barrier to be overcome before a person actually performed it. In this way, to fully understand how an act is performed, it is necessary to be clear on the barrier. In the case Morton discusses, the barrier to atrocious acts should be traced back to people’s decency and morality, which limits the imagination of human possibility and further prevents empathy with real understanding(Morton318).  Although Morton’s convincing logical analysis and reasoning is hard to dispute, I still disagree with his misleading attitude towards empathizing with atrocious acts.



In-group Bias

What brings my disagreement is that Morton’s belief that embracing empathy for atrocities would cultivate solid empathy for ordinary actions. Morton starts to illustrate this by emphasizing that, “We want to take empathy as easy, to ease everyday interaction, and we want to take it as difficult, to keep a distance between us and those we despise”(Morton 330). In his account, the word “want” underlines that people make moral choices with immediate, emotional judgement, which is based on morality, consequently leading to their unwillingness to empathize with atrocities. He indicates, “If we did not do this then we would have a deeper understanding, and a more solid empathy, for some very ordinary actions.” From my perspective, I do acknowledge that people’s failure to empathize with devil is limited by their moralities. However, it is not reasonable to judge the interference of morality as wrong. Instead, it is their morality that helps them empathize with “similar” moral people, rather than evil-doers. Just as Ken Fuchsman indicated, “Empathy is most likely to emerge with those with whom we are familiar, those that are an ‘us’”. According to Ken, the pre-condition to empathize with atrocities is that the empathizer has already been a group member of “devil communities”. Yet, the engagement of empathy, no matter in the courtroom or in daily life, is served to encourage humanity and justice. So, I shall hold my stance on the opposite side of Morton since encouraging empathy for atrocities would not only be of no help to empathy for ordinary issues, but also damages moralites formed on the way towards social justice.


To conclude, Morton’s article gives us a light on figuring out the relations between understanding why and how an act is done. I believe that the majority of his explanations are undeniable. However, his stance on whether we should empathize with atrocities without the limitation of moralities deserves our considerate reflections. Although I agree with and completely support his seeking for more appropriately applied empathy in various circumstances, it is always necessary to be aware of the primary goal of empathy involvement, specifically serving justice and building morally humane society.



Work Cited:

Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. 2011. 230-54. Print.


Fuchsman, Ken. “Empathy and Humanity.” The Journal of psychohistory, vol. 42, no. 3, 2015., pp. 176.

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.

One thought on “What attitude should we hold towards empathy for atrocities?

  1. In the passage, the author illustrates that compared to “face to face” connection and communication, information through social media provides less opportunity to people to stand in the same points as the character and create solid empathy. To elaborate, the author uses an example related to Chinese monopoly searching engine Baidu. Baidu provides wrong therapy information that makes Zexi Wei spend bunch of money to cure cancer but eventually failed. The rumors is ruthless and criticize that it’s Zexi’s fault to trust Baidu. The author did a great job of adapting this example to his main point since from the story we learn people can not feel the same way Zexi feels due to the lack of emotion on face, the body language and so on. Furthermore, the author says the because the less responsibility of making comments online, people usually comments without any deep thinking and understanding. For the most part, the author connects his example with Morton’s idea really well, but if the author can explain the definition of pseudo in the second paragraph and separate the conclusion he makes, the structure and items can be clearer to the readers.

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