Empathy: A problem for moral reasoning 



Webster’s defines empathy as

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner…

Many atheists, when it comes to moral questions, will appeal to empathy in order to ground morality. When asked why it is better to feed ones neighbor as opposed to eating ones neighbor, or why rape is a morally objectionable act, empathy will usually enter into the equation at some point. Here’s the problem with such assertions about empathy: what is subtly being asserted is that having and expressing empathy is a morally good thing to do, it is the right thing to do. The question that begs is, why?

Just as a sidebar, the nature of explanation has to be explored briefly here. So often, when we ask questions we often do not pay attention to what is being asked. (I have lightly touched on the question here) When we ask questions, they are essentially about one of three categories of knowledge, those being: agency, purpose, or material. These categories should be straightforward enough to understand in that when we are asking about knowledge of agency, we are asking a who-question; when we are asking about knowledge of purpose, we are asking a why-question; and when we are asking about material knowledge, we are asking questions in regards to substance (what), location (where), time (when), and process (how), all questions that are related to sense experience. Sometimes we interchange process with purpose, asking why as opposed to how, which is why we need to pay attention to how questions are phrased (see what I did there). Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

Most often, when the question of why is proposed to the assertion that empathy is the arbitrator of moral questions, some sort of appeal to the common good, or that social order would be unattainable appear. Well, that answers the how-question, but it does nothing to answer the why-question. In fact, it is an attempt to make an end-run around the question entirely. It is, at its heart, classical avoidance of the implication of the question.

Some will, in trying to be consistent, argue that the question is irrelevant because there is no meaning or purpose in life and yet will have to construct meaning and purpose in order for life to be livable, which begs the question of competing purposes and the necessity of being able to make meaningful judgments about them and against them. Essentially, the person making such an argument is trying to have their cake and eat it too, which is fallacious reasoning. 

What is really being argued, the hidden presupposition, is that empathy is a morally good thing to have and to demonstrate, and that those who do not have it or exercise it have a serious moral failing. The challenge to such a hidden presupposition is, why and who says so

If the operating assumption is that there is no purpose and that there is no one who says so, then the assertion is purely arbitrary and ultimately irrelevant, it doesn’t matter if one feeds ones neighbor or eats ones neighbor, they are equal positions. But if it does ultimately matter, then the assumption is refuted, because there is an appeal being made to an authority that provides and grounds the moral claim, that authority being the Christian God that the one making the claim necessarily has to assume, because the underlying claim is that, morally, one should be empathetic and to not act in such a manner is immoral, since empathy, by definition, is a moral action.


  1. […] So, it seems that some want to disconnect the ethics from the connected symbology and ritual of organized religion, appealing to empathy. Even I would argue that there is, must be some type of disconnect between them; however, there is also a necessary connection because there is a flow between them. Also, appealing to empathy poses its own problems, as I’ve discussed here. […]

  2. […] The obvious question, if one had read the prior book and took the presuppositions seriously, would read the second and say, what’s wrong with any of that? The problem is that most atheists aren’t necessarily concerned about actually justifying any of their beliefs about morality. All that you have to do is see how many will appeal to a subjective morality based in empathy, which is demonstrably insufficient for justifying moral claims, since one is tacitly assuming that it’s moral to be empathetic. […]

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