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Does "empathy" indicate a person's rational awareness of another person's feelings, or rather does it indicate an emotional concern with another person's feelings? The word is often popularly used in the latter sense: if I am empathetic with you, I care about your well-being. But the Wikipedia definition draws a prominent distinction between "empathy" the intellectual awareness of another person's feelings and "compassion" a concern for another person. It's possible to feel empathy with someone while also wishing them harm. Empathy is only the antenna, the awareness, the sense.

This distinction may be too finely drawn for some people's tastes, as it disagrees with the popular use of the term. But the distinction between awareness empathy and concern compassion does seem useful, and I am willing to go along with this strict definition of the term from now on, and differentiate between "compassion" and "empathy" as needed in future discussions. But an even tougher controversy involving the meaning of "empathy" becomes apparent in the next section of the Wikipedia page, titled "Theorists and definition".

This controversy appears to be so active that Wikipedia throws up its hands and offers a list of possible definitions from various theorists, presenting a fascinating dichotomy between two popular meanings of the word. Here's the section in full:. Berger: "The capacity to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within the frame of reference of that other person, the capacity to sample the feelings of another or to put one's self in another's shoes.

Jean Decety: "A sense of similarity in feelings experienced by the self and the other, without confusion between the two individuals. This de? Nancy Eisenberg: "An affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another's emotional state or condition, and that is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel. Greenson: To empathize means to share, to experience the feelings of another person. Alvin Goldman: "The ability to put oneself into the mental shoes of another person to understand her emotions and feelings.

William Ickes: A complex form of psychological inference in which observation, memory, knowledge, and reasoning are combined to yield insights into the thoughts and feelings of others. Heinz Kohut: Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person. Harry Prosen: "an emotional understanding which allows one as a therapist to resonate with ones patients in depth emotionally, so that it influences the therapeutic approach and alliance with the patient". Carl Rogers: To perceive the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the "as if" condition.

Thus, it means to sense the hurt or the pleasure of another as he senses it and to perceive the causes thereof as he perceives them, but without ever losing the recognition that it is as if I were hurt or pleased and so forth. Marshall Rosenberg: "Empathic connection is an understanding of the heart in which we see the beauty in the other person, the divine energy in the other person, the life that's alive in them.

Roy Schafer: Empathy involves the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another person. Wynn Schwartz: We recognize others as empathic when we feel that they have accurately acted on or somehow acknowledged in stated or unstated fashion our values or motivations, our knowledge, and our skills or competence, but especially as they appear to recognize the significance of our actions in a manner that we can tolerate their being recognized. Simon Baron-Cohen: Empathy is about spontaneously and naturally tuning into the other person's thoughts and feelings, whatever these might be [ The first is the cognitive component: Understanding the others feelings and the ability to take their perspective [ This is an observer's appropriate emotional response to another person's emotional state.

Khen Lampert: "[Empathy] is what happens to us when we leave our own bodies We observe reality through her eyes, feel her emotions, share in her pain. So, does "empathy" indicate a natural, direct experience of another person's feelings, or does it indicate a simulated representation of an experience of another person's feelings? If I am empathetic with you, do I feel your feelings, or do I only observe a colorless, abstract replica of your feelings? The road forks into two major paths here; about half of the quotes above suggest the first meaning of the word, and the other half suggest the second meaning.

Daniel Batson refers to "a motivation oriented towards the other". Frans de Waal speaks of "the capacity to be affected by and share the emotional experience of another". Greenson declares that "to empathize means to share". Khen Lampert speaks of leaving our own bodies, and joins with Greenson in using the crucial word "share". These definitions describe empathy as a direct, full, natural experience.

To feel something empathetically in conjunction with another person appears to be no different in kind than to feel it privately. We are sharing feelings; the experience of the feeling transcends the separation between individuals at the most basic level.

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However, Jean Decety isn't having this. According to Decety's quote, empathy is "a sense of similarity in feelings experienced by the self and the other, without confusion between the two individuals. Many others are apparently in this camp. Carl Rogers emphasizes that a perception of empathy arrives "with accuracy and with the emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto as if one were the person, but without ever losing the "as if" condition. The separation between you and the other person is paramount; your empathy is a facsimile of what the other person is feeling, and not the real thing itself.

Edith Stein mentions "the experience of foreign consciousness". The word "foreign" speaks more loudly than any other word in Edith Stein's sentence. I can't think of any controversy more central to the basic controversy of ethical philosophy -- from Plato to Nietzsche, from Immanuel Kant to Ayn Rand, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Karl Marx to Sigmund Freud to Jean-Paul Sartre -- than this basic disagreement over the meaning of the word "empathy".

If you believe that empathy is direct experience, than you will probably incline towards some kind of communitarian stance on ethical issues though this can map out to a wide variety of more specific stances, from liberal socialism to family-values-based religious fundamentalism. If you believe that empathy is only a weak representation or a facsimile of direct experience, than you probably think of your existence as an isolated indvidual as your only form of existence in the world, and will probably incline towards ethical philosophies that revolve around the rights of the individual though this can also describe a wide variety of ethical philosophies, from the humanitarian utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill to the brutalist individualism of Ayn Rand.

You can also examine this question by trying to imagine the consciousness of a newborn baby. You are newly born into the cold and noisy world, after having been physically connected to and dependent on your mother's body for nine months. Who are you? What are you? Do you know, at this moment, where the boundary is between yourself and the rest of the universe? I don't think you do.

Psychologists like Carl Jung speak of individuation , the process by which an infant or child gradually learns the boundaries between his or her self and the rest of the world. If individuation is indeed a process that occurs over time, that must mean that a newborn baby can feel at least some degree of empathy with every part of the universe. Phrases like "child of the universe" take on new meaning in this light; we are all born as children of the universe, coexistent with the world, feeling everything, caring about everyone.

We gradually learn to focus our feelings around the orbits of our physical bodies. But our original consciousness amounts to an awareness of universal empathy. Empathy is natural to us all, and it's the process of individuation, not the process of empathy, that we have to learn.


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Whether you agree or disagree with this -- whether you define empathy as direct and natural experience or indirect and simulated experience -- may be the unexamined foundation of your entire ethical stance in life. I can't think of any question more fascinating for us to continue to discuss on this blog. In fact it seems to me that the human race is only now reaching the level of psychological sophistication that will enable us to wholly grapple with this question and fully explore the nuances and implications buried within.

What is empathy? Is an empathetic experience an actual experience, or a representation of an experience? Is the empathetic sense a natural and inborn sense, or is it a learned capability? I'd like to know what you think. To me empathy is akin to the notion of not judging someone until having walked in their mocassins. But with empathy, it seems that one is walking on another's internal journey to see their point of view. There also is a difference between cognitive empathy also called 'theory of mind' , the ability and drive to identify another's mental states - and affective empathy, the ability and drive to respond with an appropriate emotion to another's mental states.

Autistic people, for example, have difficulties in cognitive empathy ascertaining others' feelings , but often demonstrate equal affective empathy when they are aware of others' states of mind. Psychopaths, on the other hand, show intact cognitive empathy they understand how their acts of cruelty feel to their victims but impaired affective empathy they don't care and go on nevertheless.

Cognitive empathy is clearly an effect of the process of individuation, I think, for it inevitably requires an I and a you, an observer and one who is observed - two indviduals. Affective empathy, however, is a more intuitive process of affective responsiveness, where the you and the I aren't as clearly distinct, the boundaries between them not as univocally defined, and therefore much closer to that "child of the universe" empathy you are speaking of.

Levi, to me this is all such hand waving. It's either too sophisticated and deep for me or it's too much nonsensical jumbo jumbo. But, I would like to suggest that you are leaving out sympathy. I think the better contrast to understand empathy is sympathy rather than compassion. This course will connect the dots between empathy and neuroscience "brain science". For example, empathic responsiveness releases the compassion hormone oxytocin, which blocks the stress hormone cortisol. Reduced stress correlates to reduced risk of such life style disorders as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weak immune system, depression, and the common cold.

And while the world needs more compassion, empathy is distinct from compassion. Empathy tells me what the other individual is experiencing; compassion tells me what to do about it. The scenes include empathic receptivity in Hanno's trip to the dentist and empathic understanding in Thomas' encounter with Hanno during the long silence as Gerda makes music with The Lieutenant.

Empathic responsiveness is powerfully illustrated in William's work with Blue Roses. Video: Empathy: Your Unfair Competitive Advantage in Career Transition: Complete Session Lou Agosta discusses the four phases of empathy and how break downs and break throughs in each phase contribute to success in career transition and job search. This is the complete session and includes engagement with the multi-dimensional definition of empathy, an exercise to expand one's empathy and listening , and significant question-and-answer with the audience.

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Louis Agosta, Empathy in the Context of Philosophy - PhilPapers

Empathy What it is and how it works Northwestern Feinberg School. How is empathy different than compassion or altruism? How does empathy contribute to or act as a filter against burn out or compassion fatigue? In this talk, the attendee learn engage with : 1 What is empathy — how is it defined — and how does it function 2 A short — very short — narrative of the secret story of empathy in the history of philosophy 3 How do break downs in empathy give us access to break through results in human relations?


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As an educator, he teaches empathy in the history and systems of psychology program at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University and he is a psychotherapist in private practice in Chicago. A Rumor of Empathy…in Psychology the movie. That about covers it.

Moreover, since researchers in different disciplines have focused their investigations on very specific aspects of the broad range of empathy-related phenomena, one should probably not be surprised by a certain amount of conceptual confusion and a multiplicity of definitions associated with the empathy concept in a number of different scientific and non-scientific discourses. The purpose of this entry is to clarify the empathy concept by surveying its history in various philosophical and psychological discussions and by indicating why empathy was and should be regarded to be of such central importance in understanding human agency in ordinary contexts, in the human sciences, and for the constitution of ourselves as social and moral agents.

More specifically, after a short historical introduction articulating the philosophical context within which the empathy concept was coined, the second and third sections will discuss the epistemic dimensions associated with our empathic capacities. They will address the contention that empathy is the primary epistemic means for knowing other minds and that it should be viewed as the unique method distinguishing the human from the natural sciences. Sections 4 and 5 will then focus on claims that view empathy as the fundamental social glue and that understand empathy as the main psychological mechanism enabling us to establish and maintain social relations and taking an evaluative stance towards each other.

Theodor Lipps — was also very familiar with the work of David Hume see the introduction to Coplan and Goldie in this respect. To understand this transformation we first need to appreciate the reasons why philosophers of the nineteenth century thought it necessary to appeal to empathy in order to account for our ability to appreciate natural objects and artefacts in an aesthetic manner. According to the dominant even though not universally accepted positivistic and empiricist conception, sense data constitute the fundamental basis for our investigation of the world.

Yet from a phenomenological perspective, our perceptual encounter with aesthetic objects and our appreciation of them as being beautiful—our admiration of a beautiful sunset, for example—seems to be as direct as our perception of an object as being red or square. By appealing to the psychological mechanisms of empathy, philosophers intended to provide an explanatory account of the phenomenological immediacy of our aesthetic appreciation of objects.

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Since my attention is perceptually focused on the external object, I experience them—or I automatically project my experiences—as being in the object. If those experiences are in some way apprehended in a positive manner and as being in some sense life-affirming, I perceive the object as beautiful, otherwise as ugly. In the first case, Lipps speaks of positive; in the later of negative empathy. For a recent history of the empathy concept see also Lanzoni In his Aesthetik, Lipps closely links our aesthetic perception and our perception of another embodied person as a minded creature.

We appreciate another object as beautiful because empathy allows us to see it in analogy to another human body. Similarly, we recognize another organism as a minded creature because of empathy. Empathy is ultimately based on an innate disposition for motor mimicry, a fact that is well established in the psychological literature and was already noticed by Adam Smith Even though such a disposition is not always externally manifested, Lipps suggests that it is always present as an inner tendency giving rise to similar kinaesthetic sensations in the observer as felt by the observed target.

Since we are not aware of such tendencies, we see the anger in her face Lipps More formally one can characterize the inference from analogy as consisting of the following premises or steps. Lipps does not argue against the inference from analogy because of its evidentially slim basis, but because it does not allow us to understand its basic presupposition that another person has a mind that is psychologically similar to our own mind. The inference from analogy thus cannot be understood as providing us with evidence for the claim that the other person has mental states like we do because, within its Cartesian framework, we are unable to conceive of other minds in the first place.

More importantly, Lipps does not sufficiently explain why empathy does not encounter similar problems to the ones diagnosed for the inference from analogy and how empathy allows us to conceive of other persons as having a mind similar to our own if we are directly acquainted only with our own mental states See Stueber I therefore cannot conceive of how another person can be in the same mental state as I am because that would require that I can conceive of my mental state as something, which I do not experience.

But according to the Cartesian conception this seems to be a conceptually impossible task. Moreover, if one holds on to a Cartesian conception of the mind, it is not clear how appealing to empathy, as conceived of by Lipps, should help us in conceiving of mental states as belonging to another mind. Scheler went probably the furthest in rejecting the Cartesian framework in thinking about the apprehension of other minds, while keeping committed to something like the concept of empathy. Prima facie, we do not encounter merely the bodily movements of another person. Rather, we are directly recognizing specific mental states because they are characteristically expressed in states of the human body; in facial expressions, in gestures, in the tone of voice, and so on.

Empathy within the phenomenological tradition then is not conceived of as a resonance phenomenon requiring the observer to recreate the mental states of the other person in his or her own mind but as a special perceptual act See Scheler , particularly —; For a succinct explication of the debate about empathy in the phenomenological tradition consult Zahavi See Davies and Stone It is not the place here to discuss the contemporary debate extensively, but it has to be emphasized that contemporary simulation theorists vigorously discuss how to account for our grasp of mental concepts and whether simulation theory is committed to Cartesianism.

Whereas Goldman , links his version of simulation theory to a neo-Cartesian account of mental concepts, other simulation theorists develop versions of simulation theory that are not committed to a Cartesian conception of the mind. Gordon a, b, and ; Heal ; and Stueber , For a survey on mirror neurons see Gallese a and b, Goldman , chap. Since the face to face encounter between persons is the primary situation within which human beings recognize themselves as minded creatures and attribute mental states to others, the system of mirror neurons has been interpreted as playing a causally central role in establishing intersubjective relations between minded creatures.

Stueber , chap. The evidence from mirror neurons—and the fact that in perceiving other people we use very different neurobiological mechanisms than in the perception of physical objects—does suggest that in our primary perceptual encounter with the world we do not merely encounter physical objects. Rather, even on this basic level, we distinguish already between mere physical objects and objects that are more like us See also Meltzoff and Brooks Mechanisms of basic empathy might therefore be interpreted as providing us with a perceptual and non-conceptual basis for developing an intersubjectively accessible folk psychological framework that is applicable to the subject and observed other Stueber , — This interpretation has however been criticized by researchers and philosophers who think that neural resonance presupposes rather than provides us with an understanding of what is going on in the minds of others Csibra , Hickok and At least as far as empathy for pain is concerned, our neural resonance is also modulated by a variety of contextual factors, such as how close we feel to the observed subject, whether we regard the pain to be morally justified as in the case of punishment, for example or whether we regard it as unavoidable and necessary, such as in a medical procedure Singer and Lamm ; but see also Allen , Borg , Debes , Gallese , Goldman , Iacoboni , Jacob , Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia , and Stueber a.

Yet it should be noted that everyday mindreading is not restricted to the realm of basic empathy. Ordinarily we not only recognize that other persons are afraid or that they are reaching for a particular object. We understand their behavior in more complex social contexts in terms of their reasons for acting using the full range of psychological concepts including the concepts of belief and desire.

Evidence from neuroscience shows that these mentalizing tasks involve very different neuronal areas such as the medial prefrontal cortex, temporoparietal cortex, and the cingulate cortex. Low level mindreading in the realm of basic empathy has therefore to be distinguished from higher levels of mindreading Goldman It is clear that low level forms of understanding other persons have to be conceived of as being relatively knowledge— poor as they do not involve a psychological theory or complex psychological concepts.

How exactly one should conceive of high level mindreading abilities, whether they involve primarily knowledge—poor simulation strategies or knowledge—rich inferences is controversially debated within the contemporary debate about our folk psychological mindreading abilities See Davies and Stone , Gopnik and Meltzoff , Gordon , Currie and Ravenscroft , Heal , Nichols and Stich , Goldman , and Stueber Simulation theorists, however, insist that even more complex forms of understanding other agents involve resonance phenomena that engage our cognitively intricate capacities of imaginatively adopting the perspective of another person and reenacting or recreating their thought processes For various forms of perspective-taking see Coplan and Goldie Accordingly, simulation theorists distinguish between different types of empathy such as between basic and reenactive empathy Stueber or between mirroring and reconstructive empathy Goldman Interestingly, the debate about how to conceive of these more complex forms of mindreading resonates with the traditional debate about whether empathy is the unique method of the human sciences and whether or not one has to strictly distinguish between the methods of the human and the natural sciences.

Equally noteworthy is the fact that in the contemporary theory of mind debate voices have grown louder that assert that the contemporary theory of mind debate fundamentally misconceives of the nature of social cognition. In light of insights from the phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions in philosophy, they claim that on the most basic level empathy should not be conceived of as a resonance phenomenon but as a type of direct perception. See particularly Zahavi ; Zahavi and Overgaard , but Jacob for a response.

For skepticism about empathic perspective-taking understood as a complete identification with the perspective of the other person see also Goldie Regardless of how one views this specific debate it should be clear that ideas about mindreading developed originally by proponents of empathy at the beginning of the 20 th century can no longer be easily dismissed and have to be taken seriously.

At the beginning of the 20 th century, empathy understood as a non-inferential and non-theoretical method of grasping the content of other minds became closely associated with the concept of understanding Verstehen ; a concept that was championed by the hermeneutic tradition of philosophy concerned with explicating the methods used in grasping the meaning and significance of texts, works of arts, and actions. For a survey of this tradition see Grondin Hermeneutic thinkers insisted that the method used in understanding the significance of a text or a historical event has to be fundamentally distinguished from the method used in explaining an event within the context of the natural sciences.

Other tasks mentioned in this context involved critically evaluating the reliability of historical sources, getting to know the linguistic conventions of a language, and integrating the various elements derived from historical sources into a consistent narrative of a particular epoch.

The differences between these various aspects of the interpretive procedure were however downplayed in the early Dilthey. As a result, most philosophers of the human and social sciences maintained their distance from the idea that empathy is central for our understanding of other minds and mental phenomena. Notable exceptions in this respect are R.

Notice however that in contrast to the contemporary debate about folk psychology, the debate about empathy in the philosophy of social science is not concerned with investigating underlying causal mechanisms. Rather, it addresses normative questions of how to justify a particular explanation or interpretation. Philosophers arguing for a hermeneutic conception of the human and social sciences insist on a strict methodological division between the human and the natural sciences. First, empathy is no longer seen as the unique method of the human sciences because facts of significance, which a historian or an interpreter of literary and non-literary texts are interested in, do not solely depend on facts within the individual mind.

In reading a text by Shakespeare or Plato we are not primarily interested in finding out what Plato or Shakespeare said but what these texts themselves say. The above considerations, however, do not justify the claim that empathy has no role to play within the context of the human sciences.

It justifies merely the claim that empathy cannot be their only method, at least as long as one admits that recognizing the thoughts of individual agents has to play some role in the interpretive project of the human sciences. Accordingly, a second reason against empathy is also emphasized. Individual agents are always socially and culturally embedded creatures. Understanding other agents thus presupposes an understanding of the cultural context within which an agent functions.

Moreover, in the interpretive situation of the human sciences, the cultural background of the interpreter and the person, who has to be interpreted, can be very different. In that case, I can not very easily put myself in the shoes of the other person and imitate his thoughts in my mind. If understanding medieval knights, to use an example of Winch , requires me to think exactly as the medieval knight did, then it is not clear how such a task can be accomplished from an interpretive perspective constituted by very different cultural presuppositions.

Making sense of other minds has, therefore, to be seen as an activity that is a culturally mediated one; a fact that empathy theorists according to this line of critique do not sufficiently take into account when they conceive of understanding other agents as a direct meeting of minds that is independent of and unaided by information about how these agents are embedded in a broader social environment. See Stueber , chap. For a critical discussion of whether the concept of understanding without recourse to empathy is useful for marking an epistemic distinction between the human and natural sciences consult also Stueber b.

Within the context of anthropology, Hollan and Throop argue that empathy is best understood as a dynamic, culturally situated, temporally extended, and dialogical process actively involving not only the interpreter but also his or her interpretee. See Hollan ; Hollan and Throop , ; Throop Philosophers, who reject the methodological dualism between the human and the natural sciences as argued for in the hermeneutic context, are commonly referred to as naturalists in the philosophy of social science.

They deny that the distinction between understanding and explanation points to an important methodological difference. Even in the human or social sciences, the main point of the scientific endeavor is to provide epistemically justified explanations and predictions of observed or recorded events see also Henderson At most, empathy is granted a heuristic role in the context of discovery. It however can not play any role within the context of justification. As particularly Hempel has argued, to explain an event involves—at least implicitly—an appeal to law-like regularities providing us with reasons for expecting that an event of a certain kind will occur under specific circumstances.

Empathy might allow me to recognize that I would have acted in the same manner as somebody else. Yet it does not epistemically sanction the claim that anybody of a particular type or anybody who is in that type of situation will act in this manner. For him, such reason explanations do not appeal to empirical generalizations but to normative principles of actions outlining how a person should act in a particular situation.

Similar arguments have been articulated by Jaegwon Kim , Yet as Stueber , chap. It would imply that our notions of explanation and causation are ambiguous concepts. Reasons that cause agents to act in the physical world would be conceived of as causes in a very different sense than ordinary physical causes. Moreover, as Hempel himself suggests, appealing to normative principles explains at most why a person should have acted in a certain manner. It does not explain why he ultimately acted in that way.

Despite these concessions to Hempel, Stueber suggests that empathy specifically reenactive empathy has to be acknowledged as playing a central role even in the context of justification. For him, folk psychological explanations have to be understood as being tied to the domain of rational agency. The epistemic justification of such folk psychological explanations implicitly relies on generalizations involving folk psychological notions such as belief and desire. For a related discussion about the role of understanding in contemporary epistemology and philosophy of science see Grimm and Grimm, Baumberger, and Ammon The discussion of empathy within psychology has been largely unaffected by the critical philosophical discussion of empathy as an epistemic means to know other minds or as the unique method of the human sciences.

Here empathy, or what was then called sympathy, was regarded to play a central role in constituting human beings as social and moral creatures allowing us to emotionally connect to our human companions and care for their well-being. More broadly one can distinguish two psychological research traditions studying empathy—related phenomena; that is, the study of what is currently called empathic accuracy and the study of empathy as an emotional phenomenon in the encounter of others.

One also investigates the various factors that influence empathic accuracy. One has, for example, been interested in determining whether empathic ability depends on gender, age, family background, intelligence, emotional stability, the nature of interpersonal relations, or whether it depends on specific motivations of the observer. For a survey see Ickes and ; and Taft A more detailed account of the research on empathic accuracy and some of its earlier methodological difficulties can be found in the.

In this context, psychologists have also addressed issues of moral motivation that have been traditionally topics of intense discussions among moral philosophers. They were particularly interested in investigating i the development of various means for measuring empathy as a dispositional trait of adults and of children and as a situational response in specific situations, ii the factors on which empathic responses and dispositions depend, and iii the relation between empathy and pro-social behavior and moral development.

Before discussing the psychological research on emotional empathy and its relevance for moral philosophy and moral psychology in the next section, it is vital to introduce important conceptual distinctions that one should keep in mind in evaluating the various empirical studies. Anyone reading the emotional empathy literature has to be struck by the fact that empathy tended to be incredibly broadly defined in the beginning of this specific research tradition. In this context, it is particularly useful to distinguish between the following reactive emotions that are differentiated in respect to whether or not such reactions are self or other oriented and whether they presuppose awareness of the distinction between self and others.

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Emotional contagion: Emotional contagion occurs when people start feeling similar emotions caused merely by the association with other people. You start feeling joyful, because other people around you are joyful or you start feeling panicky because you are in a crowd of people feeling panic. Affective and proper Empathy: More narrowly and properly understood, empathy in the affective sense is the vicarious sharing of an affect.

Authors however differ in how strictly they interpret the phrase of vicariously sharing an affect. For some, it requires that the empathizers and the persons they empathize with need to be in very similar affective states Coplan ; de Vignemont and Singer ; Jacob According to this definition, empathy does not necessarily require that the subject and target feel similar emotions even though this is most often the case.

Rather the definition also includes cases of feeling sad when seeing a child who plays joyfully but who does not know that it has been diagnosed with a serious illness assuming that this is how the other person himself or herself would feel if he or she would fully understand his or her situation. In contrast to mere emotional contagion, genuine empathy presupposes the ability to differentiate between oneself and the other. It cannot count as a vicarious emotional response if it is due to the perception of the outside world from the perspective of the observer and her desire that her children should be happy.

My happiness about my child being happy would therefore not be an emotional state that is more congruent to his situation. Rather, it is an emotional response appropriate to my own perspective on the world. In order for my happiness or unhappiness to be genuinely empathic it has to be happiness or unhappiness about what makes the other person happy.

Rather my affective state has to be directed toward the same intentional object. See Sober and Wilson , — and Maibom For a critical discussion of how and whether such vicarious sharing is possible see also Deonna and Matravers It should be noted, however, that some authors conceive of proper empathy more broadly as not merely being concerned with the vicarious reenactment of affective states but more comprehensively as including non-affective states such as beliefs and desires.

This is especially true if they are influenced by the discussion of of empathy as an epistemic means such as Goldman and Stueber However, already Adam Smith constitutes a good example for such broad understanding of proper empathy. Finally, others suggest that it is best to distinguish between affective sharing and perspective taking Decety and Cowell First, sympathy does not necessarily require feeling any kind of congruent emotions on part of the observer, a detached recognition or representation that the other is in need or suffers might be sufficient.

See Scheler and Nichols Second, empathy or empathic distress might not at all lead to sympathy. People in the helping professions, who are so accustomed to the misery of others, suffer at times from compassion fatigue. Yet, while personal distress is other-caused like sympathy, it is, in contrast to sympathy, primarily self-oriented. And, in contrast to empathic emotions as defined above, my personal distress is not any more congruent with the emotion or situation of another.

Rather it wholly defines my own outlook onto the world. While it is conceptually necessary to differentiate between these various emotional responses, it has to be admitted that it is empirically not very easy to discriminate between them, since they tend to occur together. Think or imagine yourself attending the funeral of the child of a friend or good acquaintance.

This is probably one reason why early researchers tended not to distinguish between the above aspects in their study of empathy related phenomena. Given the ambiguity of the empathy concept within psychology—particularly in the earlier literature—in evaluating and comparing different empirical empathy studies, it is always crucial to keep in mind how empathy has been defined and measured within the context of these studies.

For a more extensive discussion of the methods used by psychologists to measure empathy see the. Yet moral judgments, at least in the manner in which we conceive of them in modern times, are also regarded to be based on normative standards that, in contrast to mere conventional norms, have universal scope and are valid independent of the features of specific social practices that agents are embedded in. Moral judgements thus seem to address us from the perspective of the moral stance where we leave behind the perspective of self-love and do not conceive of each other either as friends or foes see Hume , 75 or as belonging to the in—group or out—group, but where we view each other all to be equal part of a moral community.

Finally, and relatedly, in order to view morality as something that is possible for human beings we also seem to require that our motivations based on or associated with moral reasons have a self-less character.


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Given to charity for merely selfish reasons, for example, seems to clearly diminish its moral worth and implicitly deny the universal character of a moral demand. Philosophically explicating the importance of morality for human life then has to do the following: It has to explain how it is that we humans as a matter of fact do care about morality thusly conceived, it has to address the philosophically even more pertinent question of why it is that we should care about morality or why it is that we should regard judgments issued from the perspective of the moral stance to have normative authority over us; and it has to allow us to understand how it is that we can act self-lessly in a manner that correspond to the demands made on us from the moral stance.

Answering all of these questions however necessitates at one point to explain how our moral interests are related to our psychological constitution as human beings and how moral demands can be understood as being appropriately addressed to agents who are psychologically structured in that manner. Prima facie, the difficulty of this enterprise consists in squaring a realistic account of human psychology with the universal scope and intersubjective validity of moral judgments, since human motivation and psychological mechanisms seem to be always situational, local, and of rather limited scope.

Moreover, as evolutionary psychologists tell us in—group bias seems to be a universal trait of human psychology.

Empathy, Expansionism, and the Extended Mind

One of the most promising attempts to solve this problem is certainly due to the tradition of eighteenth century moral philosophy associated with the names of David Hume and Adam Smith who tried to address all of the above philosophical desiderata by pointing to the central role that our empathic and sympathetic capacities have for constituting us as social and moral agents and for providing us with the psychological capacities to make and to respond to moral judgments. While philosophers in the Kantian tradition, who favor reason over sentiments, have generally been skeptical about this proposal, more recently the claim that empathy is central for morality and a flourishing human life has again been the topic of an intense and controversial debate.

On the one hand, empathy has been hailed by researchers from a wide range of disciplines and also by some public figures, President Obama most prominently among them. The following subsections will address these issues by surveying the relevant empirical research on the question whether empathy motivates us in a self-less manner, the question of whether empathy is inherently biased and partial to the in-group, and it will discuss how we might think of the normative character of moral judgments in light of our empathic capacities. For a survey of other relevant issues from social psychology, specifically social neuroscience, consult also Decety and Lamm ; Decety and Ickes , and Decety For a discussion of the importance empathy for medical practice see Halpern In a series of ingeniously designed experiments, Batson has accumulated evidence for what he calls the empathy-altruism thesis.

In arguing for this thesis, Batson conceives of empathy as empathic concern or what others would call sympathy. According to the egoistic interpretation of empathy—related phenomena, empathizing with another person in need is associated with a negative feeling or can lead to a heightened awareness of the negative consequences of not helping; such as feelings of guilt, shame, or social sanctions. Alternatively, it can lead to an enhanced recognition of the positive consequences of helping behavior such as social rewards or good feelings.

Empathy according to this interpretation induces us to help through mediation of purely egoistic motivations. We help others only because we recognize helping behavior as a means to egoistic ends. Notice however that in arguing for the empathy-altruism thesis, Batson is not claiming that empathy always induces helping behavior.

He argues for the existence of genuinely altruistic motivations and more specifically for the claim that empathy causes such genuinely altruistic motivation. These genuinely altruistic motives together with other egoistic motives are taken into account by the individual agent in deliberating about whether or not to help. Even for Batson, the question of whether the agent will act on his or her altruistic motivations depends ultimately on how strong they are and what costs the agent would incur in helping another person.

Empathy according to these assumptions can be increased by enhancing the perceived similarity between subject and target or by asking the subject to imagine how the observed person would feel in his or her situation rather than asking the subject to attend carefully to the information provided. Batson et al. In trying to argue against the aversive arousal reduction interpretation, Batson also manipulates the ease with which a subject can avoid helping another person in this case taking his place when they see him getting electric shocks.

If they were only helping in order to reduce their own negative feelings, they would be expected to leave in this situation, since leaving is the less costly means for reaching an egoistic goal. Yet they disagree about how persuasive one should ultimately regard his position.

In particular it has been pointed out that his experiments have limited value, since they target only very specific egoistic accounts of why empathy might lead to helping behavior. Batson is not able to dismiss conclusively every alternative egoistic interpretation. In addition, it has been claimed that egoism has the resources to account for the result of his experiments. It is this increased feeling of oneness rather than empathy that is causally responsible for motivating helping behavior See however Batson et al.

But it has to be acknowledged that Batson has radically changed the argumentative dialectic of the egoism-altruism debate by forcing the egoistic account of human agency to come up with ever more elaborate alternative interpretations in order to account for helping behavior within its framework. Egoism was supposed to provide a rather unified and relatively simple account of the motivational structure of human agency.

In challenging the predominance and simplicity of this framework in an empirically acute fashion, Batson has at least established altruism—claiming that besides egoistic motivations we are also motivated by genuinely altruistic reasons—as an empirically plausible hypothesis. He has shown it to be a hypothesis one is almost persuaded to believe that it is true, as he himself recently has characterized his own epistemic attitude Batson , Regardless of the question of the exact nature of the underlying motivation for helping or prosocial behavior, psychologists generally assume that in adults and children a positive, even if weak, correlation between empathy—measured in a variety of ways—and prosocial behavior has been established; and this despite the fact that the above aspects of emotional responding to another person have not always been sufficiently distinguished.

For a general survey of the various factors contributing to prosocial behavior see Bierhoff One, for example, tends to assign a better job or a higher priority for receiving medical treatment to persons with whom one has actually sympathized, in violation of the above moral principles See Batson et al. For that very reason, Batson himself distinguishes between altruistic motivation concerned with the well-being of another person and moral motivation guided by principles of justice and fairness Batson Unfortunately we do not always realize this fact when we abstractly contrast moral motivation broadly with egoistic motivation.

Finally, the research discussed so far is not relevant for deciding the question of whether sophisticated mindreading abilities are required for full blown moral agency, since Batson understands empathy primarily as an emotional phenomenon. See Nichols and Batson et al. Within the psychological literature, one of the most comprehensive accounts of empathy and its relation to the moral development of a person is provided by the work of Martin Hoffman for a summary see his Hoffman views empathy as a biologically based disposition for altruistic behavior Hoffman He conceives of empathy as being due to various modes of arousal allowing us to respond empathically in light of a variety of distress cues from another person.

As more cognitively demanding modes, Hoffman lists mediated association—where the cues for an empathic response are provided in a linguistic medium—and role taking. Hoffman distinguishes between six or more developmental stages of empathic responses ranging from the reactive newborn cry, egocentric empathic distress, quasi-ego-centric empathic distress, to veridical empathy, empathy for another beyond the immediate situation, and empathy for whole groups of people. Accordingly, empathic responses constitute a developmental continuum that ranges from emotional contagion as in the case of a reactive newborn cry to various forms of proper empathy reached at the fourth stage.

At the developmentally later stages, the child is able to emotionally respond to the distress of another in a more sophisticated manner due to an increase of cognitive capacities, particularly due to the increased cognitive ability to distinguish between self and other and by becoming aware of the fact that others have mental states that are independent from its own. Only at the fourth stage of empathic development after the middle of the second year do children acquire such abilities.

Only at the fourth stage does empathy become also transformed or associated with sympathy leading to appropriate prosocial behavior. Preston and DeWaal a,b. Significantly, Hoffman combines his developmental explication of empathy with a sophisticated analysis of its importance for moral agency. For a neuro-scientific investigation of how racial bias modulates empathic responses see Xuo, Zuo, Wang and Han Like Batson, Hoffman does not regard the moral realm as being exclusively circumscribed by our ability to empathize with other people.