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.

Summery and Disagree with “Empathy For the Devil” by Adam Morton

In the article “Empathy of The Devil”, Adam Morton mainly address the question:  why people can emphasize with the motive of the atrocious behaviors by others but will not do those themselves and why people have the tendency to conduct atrocious behavior because of the type of empathetic behavior they pick? To begin with, according to the author, people are able to know why other perform an act but it is not the same as knowing why that person did that but not the other share the strong motive. Author states that is owing to the barrier of decency: we can grasp or even have the motive to conduct atrocious behavior, but in order to truly do the atrocious behavior ourselves, we have to overcome the barriers based on fear, sympathy, disgust or decency. Then the author uses that example of A-assault and X-taxi to illustrate that people could decide whether to past a barrier by imagining the outcome of pasting barrier. More than that, the author talks about the choices of empathetic options.  He explains why “sometimes people would empathize with the atrocious act by focusing on a venial one” (326).The author believes that the empathy that people have, in this case, is pseudo-empathy. Pseudo-empathy is an empathetic feeling aiming to ease the daily interaction between people rather than true understanding. This kind of empathy would drive people pass the barriers, even with moral seriousness. In conclusion, the author hopes us can choose our empathetic emotion wisely.

From my perspective, some of the author’s points are untenable. First and foremost, at the first part of the article, the author states that people can sometime know the motive of the others to conduct atrocious behavior by their own empathy, but sometimes they won’t do the atrocious behavior themselves because of barriers. However, I think the emotion state above is not even in the category of empathy. It is only the emotional contagion. According to Amy Copan, in contrast to most of the other emotional processes referred to as empathy, emotional contagion typically puts one in an emotional state that is experienced as one’s own, that is, not in relation to the individual whose emotion leads to the contagion response. It is clear for us to grasp that knowing the motive and sharing the emotion of others who conduct atrocious act is not empathy because it does not involve in perspective-taking. The purpose of this kind of sharing emotion is to alert us to avoid harm and approach rewards. Secondly, author’s definition of pseudo-empathy in the article is not so clear. According to Amy, pseudo empathy is a kind of self-oriented perspective taking:

acknowledge that self-oriented perspective taking occurs. In fact, it is our default mode of metalizing (i.e., attempting to understand and predict others’ mental states).23 Thus, in anticipating another’s psychological states or behavior, we typically imagine ourselves in the other’s circumstances. Our engagement with the other, in this case, focuses on the other’s external situation, yet we are the ones in the situation.

Because, in the emotional state of pseudo-empathy, why only imagine ourselves in other’s situation, this will lead to the misunderstanding of others. In this case we might conduct atrocious behavior ourselves, or cross the barriers, just as what Morton says.

In conclusion, that sometimes we can understand the motive and emotions of the people who conduct atrocious behavior is not because we empathize with them but because we are in an emotional contagion with them so that we would not do the atrocious behaviors ourselves. The only thing that we need to keep in mind is the pseudo-empathy. That is: we have a nature tendency to take self-oriented perspective taking in response to others’ situations, which will lead to the misunderstanding of others. By doing so, it is easy for us to conduct indecent behavior.

Work Cited:

Morton, Adam. “Empathy for the Devil – Oxford Scholarship.” Empathy for     the Devil – Oxford Scholarship. N.p., 06 Nov. 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.

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



The Accurate Empathy: Limitations of Empathy in Adam Morton “Empathy for The Devil”

The article “Empathy for the Devil” by Adam Morton raises the question of why do we feel empathy toward ordinary actions, while being blind towards evil, atrocious, acts. According to the author, the limitation of empathy towards atrocious actions is caused by people being too sensitive, which makes it “harder to identify imaginatively with important parts of human possibility” (Morton 318). From the author’s perspective, we should identify accurate empathetic emotion among all empathetic feelings. According to the Morton, empathy is sharing affective tone and perspective and further underlines that “taking another’s point of view can result in understanding their actions better” (Morton 318). In the essay, Adam Morton focuses on a “why versus how” problem, which illustrates that lack of empathy towards perpetuators is due to lack of understanding of why a person did that particular act, out of all of the options, rather than just understanding why person did atrocity. According to the author, in order to understand the reason behind going in one direction rather than in the other, “we need a general intuitive sense of their barrier-overcoming profiles” (Morton 329). This is where empathy plays the role: in understanding the barrier and the ways we use to overcome them. He presents series of paradigms that illustrate various non-evil type of barriers
that, if connected to evil acts, allow empathy to bring some insight in atrocious actions. The author’s perspective on the question is that lack understanding of perpetuators barrier overcoming profile leads pseudo-empathy, an empathetic feeling that is not
accompanied by the understanding (Morton 327). Therefore, according to the author, in empathyorder to find the accurate empathetic emotion towards ones who did atrocious actions,
we need to rely on our understanding of their motives and perspective and rely on the real empathy, rather than pseudo-empathy.

After analyzing Adam Morton’s article “Empathy for the Devil”, I regard some of the arguments made by the author as inaccurate. The author states that lack understanding of perpetuator’s barrier overcoming profile leads to lack of understanding of how person did the atrocity, which leads to pseudo-empathy. Moreover, Morton states that in order to understand one’s actions better, we need take his or her point of view, therefore, empathy, according to the author, should be other-oriented. From my perspective, empathy’s effect on our understanding of other’s feelings is more influential when it is self-oriented. Self-oriented empathy is adjusting other person’s position to ourselves and applying our own background and feelings towards the situation, rather than taking that person’s perspective with their feelings and background as in other-oriented empathy. According to MJ Banissy’s article “Inter-Individual Differences in Empathy are Reflected in Human Brain Structure”, self-oriented empathy towards another person leads to “greater neural activity in the neural network” than other-oriented empathy and leads to greater replication of other’s neural activity (Banissy). Moreover, Philip L Jackson, states that “shared neural circuits between self and other prompt the observer to resonate with the emotional state of others” (Jackson, 6). Therefore, as revealed by MJ, self-oriented empathy leads to greater neural activity, which, according Philip, leads to understanding emotional state of others. Hence, in order to understand a perpetuator and thus empathize with atrocious act, we need to rely on self-oriented, rather than other-oriented empathy.

Understanding effects of self-oriented and other-oriented empathy, it is clear that Adam Morton’s argument about taking other’s perspective should be overlooked. According to the author, the reason behind the failure of people to empathize with atrocious acts is lack of understanding of how person did atrocity, which leads to pseudo-empathy. As displayed by MJ Banissy’s and Philip L Jackson’s articles, self-oriented, rather than other-oriented, empathy is the key to understanding and empathizing with ones who did evil, atrocious, actions. However, by disagreeing with Adam Morton’s understanding of effects of self-oriented and other-oriented empathy, I do not, in any means, contradict author’s overall argument about the topic: the reason behind lack of empathy towards atrocious acts is the lack of understanding of how, rather than why, evil actions are being done.

Works Cited:

  • Banissy, MJ. “Inter-Individual Differences in Empathy are Reflected in Human Brain Structure.” Neuroimage, vol. 62, no. 3, 2012. pp. 2034-2039.
  • Jackson, Philip L., Pierre Rainville, and Jean Decety. “To what Extent do we Share the Pain of Others? Insight from the Neural Bases of Pain Empathy.” Pain, vol. 125, no. 1, 2006. pp. 5-9.
  • Morton, Adam. “Empathy for the Devil.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford University Press, 2011. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2012. Date Accessed 17 Oct. 2016. pp. 318-330.
  • Hoffman, Martin L. “Empathy, Justice, and the Law.” Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2011. 230-54. Print.

Image Sources:

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.

Asking why

Morton’s essay ” Empathy for the devil” addresses the main question: Why is it hard for us to empathize with people who do atrocious acts? Morton makes it clear that while trying to empathize with people, we often tend to ask the question “why” they did what they did (319). Once we understand this, we feel that we have fully empathized with them. Morton However, argues that just understanding why isn’t enough to empathize with them. He claims that there is a difference between understanding how a person performed an act (atrocious in this case) and why he performed it. Why a person does something only makes us understand his reasons or motives but it doesn’t make us understand how they were able to overcome their inner moral barrier/values that normally prevent them to do atrocious actions. Morton explains that to fully understand someone, we need to “feel the same sort of emotion felt in the same sort of way” (he calls this “Affective tone and perspective”) and this understanding comes from answering the how question and not the why (319). He uses the example of an abused wife who kills her husband. Morton explains that just understanding why she killed him makes it easy to judge her. We tend to think that no matter what the husband did to her, she wasn’t justified in killing him. However, by understanding how she was able to overcome her inner ethical value- of not killing- we are as well able to overcome our “empathetic barrier” that would prevent us from empathizing with her (Morton321). Using many other examples, he elaborates that there is an “internalized code of conduct” that makes it hard for us to empathize with atrocious actions (the reason to why decent people find it hard to empathize with atrocious actions) (Morton318). However, by understanding how a person did those actions, we can overcome the empathetic barrier and hence understand them fully.

 I find Morton’s main claim -we necessarily need to understand how and not why a person did something to overcome our “empathetic barrier” (321) – digging a little bit too deep than we need to understand them which might mislead our judgments. Formosa Paul in his essay “Understanding evil acts” supports my point of view. Unlike Morton, Formosa explains that all we need to overcome what he calls the “puzzlement” (59). This “puzzlement” as Paul explains is the shock or the surprise we tend to get when we hear or see an evil action. Humans tend not to identify with evil. Paul thinks that we are puzzled by evil actions because they are unfamiliar to us and that we can’t think of ourselves committing them. He continues by saying that if we are to empathize with a person, we need to overcome this tendency to being surprised by evil. Overcoming this can be compared to the surmounting the “empathetic barrier” in Morton’s essay since they all provide a wall that sort of prevents us to empathize. Paul then suggests that we should ask ourselves if we would have done the same thing had we been in the same situation or had the same motifs and desires. After answering this question can we break out of this puzzlement which we need to empathize with wrong doers (Formosa 59).  Relating this point to my argument, understanding how a person does what they do using our imagination is going a little bit too deep into the action that it might mislead us or even blind us from reality. This is simply to say that imagining how a person did what they did does not guarantee that you are going to imagine anything close to the reality. Our imagination can sometimes go wild.

I therefore not only disagree on Morton’s point that we have to know how a person did what they did to empathize with them but I also think that the Imagination itself is flawed in a sense that we can’t count on it. On the other hand, just like Paul Formosa, I think that just understanding why is enough and it doesn’t require us to use any exaggerated imagination. To understand why, we just need to talk to the person and find out their motives and ask ourselves if we could have done the same thing given the same motives. I would hence, reject Morton’s view on understanding how rather than why because of the above reasons.  

Work cited:

 Adam, Morton. “Empathy for the devil.”  Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. Oxford University Press, Oxford; New York; 2011.

Formosa, Paul. “Understanding Evil Acts.” Human Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 2007., pp. 57-77doi:10.1007/s10746-007-9052-y.


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

Disagreement about Morton’s theory

In Adam Morton’s article “Empathy for the Devil”, Morton discusses the reason that one cannot truly empathize with a person who does evil acts. He points out that there is a major difference between understanding why someone does an atrocious act and understanding how that person could overcome the barrier of his or her own ethical values. For instance although someone can feel an understanding of the evildoer’s motivation of committing an atrocious act, he or she will still have a hard time understanding the reason for that person to choose to do the exact atrocious act instead of choosing other options. Morton calls this kind of empathy “pseudo-empathy”(327), and he claims that we do not attempt to empathize evils because all we can do for them is to “pseudo empathize” with them. However, I believe that one’s perpetration of evil acts has a lot to do with the situation he or she was in. By analyzing the situation, we can fully empathize with that perpetrator. So the reason that we cannot understand an evildoer’s decision of committing an evil act because we do not have enough insight of the situation he or she was in when committed the act.

As Paul Formosa suggests in “Understanding Evil Acts”, “many normal humans, in bad situations, are indeed capable of great evil.” He indicates that those who are law abiding in some situations may not do so in other situations, therefore it is the situation that makes them commit atrocious acts (64). He gives an example of Milgram ‘obedience’ experiment, in which the subject, being assigned as the “teacher”, is given a task of giving electric shocks to a “learner”, who is a confederate in the experiment, every time the learner’s answer to a question is wrong. The subject is told to ignore the scream of the learner and increase the voltage of the shock. The result of the experiment is that two third of the subjects fully obeyed the instruction to give electric shocks throughout the process. The evildoer in this case gives an innocent person electric shocks due to the compulsiveness of the environment, and has nothing to do with their moral standard. From this example we can see that some evil perpetrators do evil acts because their environment compels them to do so, and that is the only reason for them to commit that act.

According to Morton’s theory, we do not try to understand the evildoers because we can never understand that “how” question. Formosa’s answer to the “how” question is the situation the evildoers found themselves in (66). He calls this kind of situations evil-encouraging, in which one’s likelihood of performing evil acts is increased (66). Being within evil-encouraging situations can also lead to the increase in prevalence of evil-encouraging beliefs and group conflict. Morton does not consider the impact of one’s circumstance when trying to empathize evildoers. However, Formosa manages to empathize evildoers without pseudo empathy by presenting a possibility that can cause someone does atrocious act with understandable reasons for others to empathy with. He does this by using the Milgram experiment as an example to show us one group of evildoers that have no other mercurial motivations.

Considering all above, one may find Morton’s view rather incomplete. Morton’s attitude towards empathizing with evildoer is too pessimistic. We can try to empathize some evildoers who commit evil act because they are in evil encouraging environment as Formosa claims.


Works cited:

Formosa, Paul. “Understanding Evil Acts.” Human Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 2007., pp. 57-77

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

Disagreeing with Morton

In the article “Empathy for the Devil” by Adam Morton, the writer raises the question of why we do feel empathy toward ordinary actions are blind towards atrocious actions. According to the author, people usually constructor a “barrier” when empathizing other’s atrocious acts, and that because of people being too sensitive so that it makes it “harder to identify imaginatively with important parts of human possibility” (Morton 318). Morton also states that one should identify accurate empathetic emotion among all the empathetic feelings while be aware of “puzzlement about how in many very ordinary cases someone we know well could do what they did” (Morton 330). First of all, Adam Morton underlines his definition of the empathy and displays series of examples that help him to argue his point. He claims that empathy is sharing effective tone and perspective. In the main part of his essay, Adam Morton focuses on “why and how” problem which means that, most of the times, even though one has empathetic feeling toward the perpetuator and know HOW the perpetuator managed to do it, one still won’t fully understand WHY the person did that particular act and their inner motivation, and thus his empathy becomes a pseudo-empathy. According to Adam Morton, pseudo-empathy is empathetic feeling that is not accompanied by the understanding. For author, to understand the reason behind going in one direction rather than in other, “we have to overcome some barrier or inhabitation” (Morton 320). He uses examples of A-assault, X-taxi, Smoking, Propositioning and Dog poop to argue his point. These paradigms illustrate the various barriers that might be the answer to the main question of the article. The author’s perspective on the problem is that people usually feel pseudo-empathy towards ones who did atrocious acts, which limits their empathy. Overall, the author states that in order to find the accurate empathetic emotion towards ones who did atrocious actions, we need to rely on our understanding of their motives and perspective and rely on the real empathy, rather than pseudo-empathy.


Morton did absolutely a good job in both using an unusual way to explain the empathy and providing the examples for his viewpoint. I have to say that most of his examples, except the example of dog poop, are effective and precise. However, Morton tried to define empathy in his own way seems to be unpersuasive and may even be a failure. From Morton’s point of view, empathy is invoked when a person fully understands another’s action and his or her reason to act like that, but this may not be the definition of empathy. As far as I am concerned, empathy is variable in different environment and may be invoked by different cases in different situation. According to Cuff, B. M. P., in the article “Empathy: A Review of the Concept”, they defined empathy like this: “Empathy includes both cognitive and affective elements; the emotions of the target and observer are similar but not identical; other stimuli, such as imagination, can evoke empathy; a self/other distinction is maintained in empathy, although a degree of merging is necessary; empathy is affected by both trait and state influences; behavioral outcomes are not part of empathy itself; and finally, empathy is automatically elicited but is also subject to top-down controlled processes” (Cuff 150). It is not hard to find out that this definition of empathy is totally different from Morton’s, what Cuff suggests is that empathy is a complicated emotion and has more than one form. I think that Morton’s definition of empathy may be too subjectively and too shallow whereas Cuff considers that empathy is actually hard to define and we should consider empathy in several situations, and apparently the latter opinion is more persuasive.


Admittedly, Morton’s article’s structure doesn’t allow him to define empathy by cases, but it will never be a bad idea to mention that empathy is complex, unstable and we should define empathy by cases. Morton’s definition of empathy is, apparently, differ from what it should be and might mislead the people who study empathy in the first time.


Work Cited:

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

Cuff, B.M.H, “Empathy: A review of concept” Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, Coventry University, UK, December 1, 2014, 145-153.


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

When Morton Veers Off Course

Throughout his essay “Empathy for the Devil”, Adam Morton makes several claims in reference to empathizing with atrocious acts. Morton goes into more depth by looking at how and why seemingly normal people will empathize with evil acts. He ultimately theorizes that there exists a barrier between people knowing how and why an atrocious act is performed. Morton arrived at this thesis by examining people who showed signs of empathizing with atrocious acts and looks further as to why “normal” people like us end up showing empathy to people performing these evil acts. He comes to a conclusion that we are able to have an understanding of why people might perform an evil act. Though, the barrier comes into play when we have to understand how a person ultimately performs the act. This is the barrier that he refers to(Morton 320). Morton elaborates in saying that people will often mistake feelings of empathy with pseudo-empathy. He says that this is a form of empathy which is accompanied by no understanding at all(Morton 327). By deriving of this term, Morton is able to have a concrete word to describe the people who experience the barrier.

Adam Morton develops a strong argument with strong support, thus making it difficult to refute. With a paper that revolves around the term “empathy”, it is important that Morton is on the same page as the reader when it comes to defining terms.  He establishes fair us of the term “pseudo-empathy”. At the point in the reading when this establishment occurs, it is likely that the reader has gotten a good grasp on what empathy is. In bringing up a seemingly similar term of pseudo-empathy, Morton is confusing the reader. Christian Miller helps support me on this in his article on “Defining Empathy: Thoughts on Coplan’s Approach”. Miller does an extensive analysis on a variety of issues with Coplan, but one of the most simple points is what helps to support my debunking of the idea of pseudo-empathy. He says that there are certain people(Adam Morton is included in this list) who have a very wide spectrum for which they categorize empathy. Though, he goes on to explain a differing mindset that Coplan expresses. Coplan says that ONLY “Empathy Proper” is considered to be empathy. All other processes (such as pseudo-empathy) are considered to be non empathetic processes(Miller 71). This is what I think must be added to Morton’s essay. He already makes some very small distinctions between aspects of human actions,etc. I think he needs to make a clear cut line on what is not empathy so it is easier to understand who empathizes and who does not. It is too difficult to understand how a pseudo-empathizer is different.

Given a reader who better understands the weakness of using “pseudo-empathy”, it seems as though they should question Morton’s argument. He main way of hooking in the reader is with an essay entitled “Empathy for the Devil”. It seems absurd to readers that people would actually empathize with the Devil. Though, it turns out that Adam Morton is arguing that some people “pseudo-empathize” with the Devil. Knowing that pseudo-empathy is not empathy at all, this means that the basis of title and thesis collapse.







MILLER, C. (2011), DEFINING EMPATHY: THOUGHTS ON COPLAN’S APPROACH. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 49: 66–72. doi:10.1111/j.2041-6962.2011.00057.x

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